The Trouble With Skeptics

December 19, 2009 at 3:55 pm (Miscellaneous) (, )

Daniel Loxton, the editor of Junior Skeptic magazine (the kids’ science periodical bound inside Skeptic magazine), posted some “skeptic fails” on Twitter back in September. I thought I’d repost them here and add some thoughts of my own. Here goes.

Skeptic Fail 1: supposing your personal incredulity trumps expert consensus (on climate, fluoridation, vaccines, 9/11 etc)…

This is something I see all too often, but is not something which I would associate with the skeptics I have corresponded with. They might “doubt, question, or disagree with assertions or generally accepted conclusions”, but they do tend to accept evidence when it is provided – and to accept their limitations when discussing topics they are not expert on.*

The problem with self-styled skeptics who question climate change or vaccination is that all too often they refuse to accept evidence that does not fit with their preconceptions. Perhaps “denier” would be a more accurate label than “skeptic”, which is something that Fail number three refers to.

Skeptic Fail 2: thinking science and skepticism objectively confirm our own pre-existing moral or political preferences.

Skeptic Fail 3: giving cover to denialists *because* they adopt the “skeptic” label.

Skeptic Fail 4: thinking a year listening to podcasts gives you better knowledge of paranormal minutiae than proponents.

Skeptic Fail 5: Using ad hominems. Ad hominems are as ugly and offputting coming from us as from anyone else.

As I’ve written before of online debate and criticism: “Unfortunately, where it is perceived that criticism is aggressive rather than robust the criticism may have as adverse an effect on the critic as it does on the person whose views are subject to comment (if not more so).”

Skeptic Fail 6: Repeating a standard “skeptical explanation” without finding out if it’s true—or if there’s any “mystery” to explain

Repeating a standard “skeptical explanation” would seem to me to be the antithesis of skepticism and it strikes me that to do so without bothering to look at the evidence would be foolish.

Skeptic Fail 7: Thinking we are inherently smarter than paranormal or pseudoscientific believers.

Here is a review of Stuart Sutherland’s Irrationality. I think this quote is worth reproducing here: “First published in 1992, Irrationality proposes, and to any reasonable mind proves, that we are for the most part credulous fools who would do well, in most circumstances, to stop and think before we go and do something stupid; for stupid things are what we often end up doing, however much we congratulate ourselves on being rational animals. The book’s conclusions would appear to be just as valid in 2007 as they were 15 years ago.”[My italics.]

We are all irrational to some degree – whether we are skeptics or believers in the paranormal and/or pseudoscience.

Skeptic Fail 8: Thinking your skepticism makes you immune to error; it should make you more aware of your own fallibility.

Linked to Skeptic Fail number seven, believing yourself to be immune to error by virtue of your skepticism is foolish. If skeptics have learned anything from studying pseudoscience and the paranormal, it should be that there are many ways to be wrong – and the person who is wrong is often the last to realise it.

Skeptic Fail 9: Assuming that your fellow skeptic is (or ought to be) an atheist.

People are religious, atheist, or agnostic for any number of reasons. While skepticism and atheism are often associated, I think it would be a mistake to assume that the two are inextricably linked.

Skeptic Fail 10: Thinking that disrespect and mockery are ever effective outreach. At best, superiority entertains the base.

I think that this is related to the earlier reference to ad-hom. Personal attacks, mockery, disrespect, and aggressive criticism are unlikely to help you to persuade anyone of your point – whether they are an “opponent” or an onlooker.

*I write about different topics on this blog, none of which I am an expert in. I think that as long as you are cautious in your approach, willing to read around a subject before tackling it, and link to whatever you are discussing so that others can make their own judgements and correct any misconceptions you have, it is reasonable to blog about a topic as a non-expert. You should always, though, accept that you are likely to have made an error and will more often than not receive a comment pointing out this error.

My approach to this is to invite criticism and corrections, and to update the post, with a nod to the comment(s) which point out the error(s). I keep an open comment thread on each and every post – blog comments for me are a form of peer review.

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29 Comments

  1. jdc325 said,

    In my post, I wrote of the anti-vaccination and climate skeptic lobbies that “Perhaps “denier” would be a more accurate label than “skeptic”.” I recall that someone on a forum once proposed that blanket use of the term “denier” should itself be a “Skeptic Fail”. Feel free to add your own “Skeptic Fails” here in the comments thread.

  2. Tweets that mention The Trouble With Skeptics « Stuff And Nonsense -- Topsy.com said,

    [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Jack of Kent and jdc 325, Thetis. Thetis said: RT @jdc325 The Trouble With Skeptics: http://bit.ly/4pET9r #skepticfail [...]

  3. Simon said,

    Thank you for this. I’ve exoerienced many of these and decided to distance myself from the Skeptic community in the event I be called up on any of them. #9 is particularly sensitive for me – I’ve felt alienated by those who present the impression that Skeptics ought to be atheist

  4. podblack said,

    In response to the skeptic = atheist claim – http://www.csicop.org/sb/show/deist_skeptic_not_a_contradiction

  5. uberVU - social comments said,

    Social comments and analytics for this post…

    This post was mentioned on Twitter by jdc325: The Trouble With Skeptics: http://bit.ly/4pET9r #skepticfail…

  6. jdc325 said,

    Thanks for commenting podblack. I’d forgotten to mention your post on skeptics: http://podblack.com/?p=1595 which also used some of the Skeptic Fails that Daniel Loxton tweeted. Thanks also for the CSI link.

  7. jdc325 said,

    Simon – thanks for commenting. I think it’s a real shame that you felt alienated from the skeptic community. Perhaps the “inclusivity” of the skeptic community is another topic worthy of discussion.

  8. William Satire said,

    I like them all, escpecially #10. Gentle mockery is fine sometimes, but like you say, I’ve never witnessed anyone being convinced by ridiculing them.

  9. Martin said,

    “Perhaps the “inclusivity” of the skeptic community is another topic worthy of discussion.”

    I’m actually setting up a panel for Hampshire Skeptics in the Pub in Winchester in April to discuss this very issue… My personal concern is that the skeptic community may be far less inclusive than we like to think it is…

  10. AndyD said,

    The skeptic=atheist argument intrigues me.

    If you’re going to go all out to make “the skeptic community” (whatever that is) “inclusive”, then I suspect you’d first need to define “skeptic”. Can a skeptic believe in homeopathy as long as they don’t blindly accept the claims of so-called psychics? Can they defend chiropractic to the death as long as they think magnetic therapy is bunk? What if they believe in the entirety of CAM and psychic phenomena but don’t think a man in Nigeria really has $600,000 to share with them? Can they genuinely believe that vaccination, 9/11 and chemotherapy are conspiracies leading to a one-world government and still be “included” in “the skeptic community”?

    Or is it only religious belief that’s being pardoned?

  11. Blue Genes said,

    “Skeptic Fail 2: thinking science and skepticism objectively confirm our own pre-existing moral or political preferences.”

    Guilty as charged. In my experience science has been abused to justify either side of the political spectrum.

    However, on occasion evidence-based policy and my political views can by serendipity coincide – such as that decriminilisation of cannabis leading to a fall in use in Portugal.

  12. ‘The trouble with skeptics’, ‘illiberal liberals’ and skeptic projection « Homeopathy4health said,

    [...] singh, skeptic, spiked, The Guardian, Trick or Treatment I appreciate jdc325’s piece on inappropriate skeptic attitudes and behaviours, having been subject to them on this blog.  I’m pleased to say however that generally the [...]

  13. Skepticat said,

    Nice post and the blog’s looking great, too.

  14. jdc325 said,

    Thanks for the comments everyone.

    @AndyD – a thought-provoking comment. I shall have to think about the point you’ve raised.

    @Martin – Hampshire Skeptics in the Pub panel sounds interesting.

    @Skepticat – thank you for the kind words.

  15. Jim Lippard said,

    @AndyD I’d say that it’s possible for a skeptic to believe individual items on your list (though not the ones phrased like “the entirety of CAM”), so long as they do so because they have legitimately studied them in some depth and think that the weight of the scientific evidence supports them, or if they admit that it’s something they buy into irrationally, perhaps for the entertainment it brings or to be part of a social group. If, however, they believe in a whole bunch of such things, that’s probably evidence that they’re not quite getting the point of critical thinking and skepticism somewhere. Being a skeptic doesn’t mean that you’re always correct (as per the above comment on Skeptic Fail #7), and I don’t think it necessarily means you’re always in accord with mainstream science, either.

    Skeptic fail #6 is a pretty common one. For example, I don’t think most skeptics have a sufficient knowledge of the parapsychology literature to offer a qualified opinion, as opposed to simply repeat the positions of some of the few skeptics (like Ray Hyman and Susan Blackmore) who do.

  16. grammarking said,

    @ AndyD,

    I agree more or less with Jim Lippard. Skepticism (and I suppose humanism) is not about what you believe, it’s about how you go about deciding what you believe, what criteria you use. It is not in itself mututally exclusive for someone to be religious… well tell you what, let’s keep away from the term religious, since it kind of presupposes a ritualistic belief. Belief in a god and skepticism are not necessarily mutually exclusive, just like belief in a paranormal event, belief in chiropractic, etc.

    However, presumably such a person would have some kind of evidence that the rest of us don’t have, or they’ve just made a mistake somewhere along the line. If it’s the former, they should be able to convince the rest of us, if we’re doing skepticism right, but if it’s the latter, then once the mistake is pointed out they should change their mind.

  17. Michael said,

    This is a very useful list – and some intriguing commentary. Similarly to Simon, the one that resonates with me the most is #9 (and I’m unsurprised that it’s the one generating the most discussion).

    I have attempted to blog my thoughts in my usual incoherent manner here:

    http://www.nontoxic.org.uk/?p=148

  18. fed up said,

    “They might “doubt, question, or disagree with assertions or generally accepted conclusions”, but they do tend to accept evidence when it is provided”

    This I feel is the very heart of the problem with skeptics who attack ideas they actually know nothing about , but can point to a RCT’s or peer reviewed papers. They blindly follow the science based evidence as if the evidence is 100% accurate and could not be wrong or manipulated. I think (i may be wrong) there are very few peices of scientific evidence which don’t have an opposing view that also has evidence. I’m sure scientific facts today will be disproved in a few years too come, but to say something is wrong or can’t work because you can’t show scientific papers is not being a skeptic it’s just being blinkered.

  19. jdc325 said,

    Jim Lippard, Michael, grammarking – thank you for the comments.

  20. jdc325 said,

    This I feel is the very heart of the problem with skeptics who attack ideas they actually know nothing about , but can point to a RCT’s or peer reviewed papers. They blindly follow the science based evidence as if the evidence is 100% accurate and could not be wrong or manipulated.

    If they can point to peer-reviewed RCTs (or, even better, systematic reviews) then there’s an argument that they don’t need specialist knowledge (with the caveat that they should have sufficient understanding of the papers they link to – or at least a working knowledge of criticial appraisal of scientific research). I think, though, that point in your comment is something of a straw man – skeptics of my acquaintance tend to be fairly knowledgeable on the subjects they discuss. Some, for instance, have signed up for homeopathy courses and/or read the Organon before debating the merits of homeopathy. Professor Ernst could be characterised as a skeptic (although I expect he would prefer “scientific investigator”) and he is surely well qualified to discuss Alternative Medicine? I also do not know any skeptics who “blindly follow the science based evidence as if the evidence is 100% accurate and could not be wrong or manipulated” – this looks like another straw man to me. Have you read anything written by a skeptic on the subject of publication bias, for example? I have.

    I think (i may be wrong) there are very few peices of scientific evidence which don’t have an opposing view that also has evidence.

    There’s probably some truth in this, but you have to bear in mind that not all opposing views are equal – if there are several large, well-conducted trials that show one thing and a handful of badly-conducted trials that show the opposite it would be foolish to assign equal weight to both sides of the argument.

    Thanks for commenting.

  21. 2012hoax said,

    @fed up:
    > I think (i may be wrong) there are very few peices of scientific evidence which don’t have an opposing view that also has evidence.

    In my limited experience, scientific debate frequently revolves around how to interpret the available data, and not as much with opposing data.

    If on the other hand the “opposing data” are things like crop circles, alien visitation, etc., the skeptic is in my opinion well justified in dismissing the claim.

  22. Neuroskeptic said,

    jdc: ” supposing your personal incredulity trumps expert consensus (on climate, fluoridation, vaccines, 9/11 etc)…

    This is something I see all too often, but is not something which I would associate with the skeptics I have corresponded with.”

    It does happen though. Look at James Randi, whose skeptical argument re: global warming was essentially just personal incredulity (although at least he admitted that.)

    I think some of these 10 are just filler. “Using ad hominems” – If you can point me to a single group of people that has never “used an ad hominem” about people they disagree with, I’ll eat my hat. We’re skeptics. We don’t have a high opinion of CAM people etc. They don’t have a high opinion of us. I’m sure they enjoy insulting us & that really doesn’t bother me. That’s kind of how it works.

    On the other hand point #6 is very important. The example closest to my heart is the appeal to “the placebo effect” whenever any treatment that seems a bit dodgy seems to work. If the placebo effect really were as powerful as skeptics occasioanlly seem to think it would be almost magical in itself…

  23. jdc325 said,

    Thanks for the comment Neuroskeptic. Interesting point re placebo effect and skepticfail #6

  24. fed up said,

    “If they can point to peer-reviewed RCTs (or, even better, systematic reviews) then there’s an argument that they don’t need specialist knowledge (with the caveat that they should have sufficient understanding of the papers they link to – or at least a working knowledge of criticial appraisal of scientific research). ” I think this leads me back to “They blindly follow the science based evidence as if the evidence is 100% accurate and could not be wrong or manipulated.” or are you saying all peer reviewed rcts and systematic reviews are totally honest and the outcomes are never manipulated, wrong or altered in any way? If you agree that they are sometimes manipulated then if you have no knowledge of the subject your whole argument is based on (possibly) flawed data.

    “surveys that asked about the behaviour of colleagues, 14% knew someone who had fabricated, falsified or altered data, and up to 72% knew someone who had committed other questionable research practices.”

    “I think, though, that point in your comment is something of a straw man – skeptics of my acquaintance tend to be fairly knowledgeable on the subjects they discuss.”
    what counts as “at least a working knowledge of criticial appraisal of scientific research” how much knowledge is needed? I think you will find a lot of bloggers are as qualified in scientific research as they are in homeopathy.
    AltMed
    Government
    Humanism
    Religion
    Science
    These are a list of someones bloggs. He makes sweeping statements based on what? his own personal appraisal of science papers or does he just regurgitate other peoples work and “blindly follow the science based evidence as if the evidence is 100% accurate and could not be wrong or manipulated.”

    This top science blogger owns a coffee shop. What qualification does he hold to pass comments on science papers and subjects he actually knows nothing about?

    “I’m 40-something skeptic with a passion for coffee. Luckily one of my businesses is a coffee shop and that allows me to pursue my love of espresso at the expense of smiling politely to the grey haired ‘milky coffee‘ brigade.

    Apart from running 2 businesses, I have a family and a life away from the internet (although my phone lets me carry the web in my pocket), therfore this will remain a very simple blog. I won’t be spending hours worrying about ‘eye candy’ and incorporating lots of ‘web wizardry’. The more this blog eats into my free time, the less I’m likely to update it…..

    It’s better to question what you are told to believe, than simply believe what you are told without question !” Unless its a peer reviewed science paper, because as we all know they are always 100% accurate. Try to question something you know nothing about.

    As for Mr Ersnt I would like to know who gave him and how he got his title. As for his research I think this best sums up what he actually does.

    “An RCT is a “randomized controlled clinical trial.”

    We have discussed the scientific fallacy of “data mining” here in the past in which, instead of testing an hypothesis (aka the Scientific Method), the researcher simply asks the computer to find any correlations in the mountain of collected data. That is not science.

    Our readers know that a statistical correlation often – or usually – means nothing.

    Junkfood Science discusses Beware the RCT. One quote:

    Even medical professionals get taken by this growing technique. It’s most common when secondary studies use the database from participants in a randomized controlled trial to look for correlations — not to scientifically test a hypothesis, let alone one the original trial had been designed to fairly test. Carefully controlled clinical trials are concerned with causes and effective treatments. In contrast, multivariate analyses of large databases, with their statistical manipulations and regression computer modeling, are statistics. Statistics is about correlations. It’s not biological research”

  25. Michael Grayer said,

    “They blindly follow the science based evidence as if the evidence is 100% accurate and could not be wrong or manipulated.”

    Not true. Skeptical bloggers are generally very good at critically appraising the details of how a particular piece of evidence was gathered, and deciding whether or not it can be trusted, and why. It is simply not enough to say “ooh, some evidence is manipulated, therefore I can choose which evidence I think is manipulated and use what I like to support whatever conclusion I like”. The question of to what degree any piece of evidence is reliable is not arbitrary.

    Neither can you throw together a set of random assertions in an arbitrary fashion (as you then go on to do) and call it a coherent argument.

  26. fed up said,

    “Not true. Skeptical bloggers are generally very good at critically appraising the details of how a particular piece of evidence was gathered, and deciding whether or not it can be trusted, and why”

    where is your evidence for this? What qualifies them to critically appraise the evidence? Do they have training? are they qualified? I doubt very much that most, not all, skeptical bloggers look further than the conclusion or past who wrote the article.

    “It is simply not enough to say “ooh, some evidence is manipulated, therefore I can choose which evidence I think is manipulated and use what I like to support whatever conclusion I like”

    Did I say that? I said that if some evidence is manipulated and if you base your argument on that evidence when you are not qualified to judge the evidence or the subject, then your argument is, well , useless. But some still argue the point because they “blindly follow the science based evidence as if the evidence is 100% accurate and could not be wrong or manipulated.”

  27. fed up said,

    its so quiet. I was expecting a reply michael.

  28. softestpawn said,

    I like the list – always a good idea to keep a watch out on your own shortcomings.

    What’s a skeptical “community” though? Is there somewhere I sign up and get a special woo decoder ring? It seems a bit odd to talk about skeptics as any sort of group, unless of course you start labelling all those that disagree with your own PoV as ‘deniers’, which is Fail #5, #8 and #10.

  29. Simon said,

    Jack of Kent has been discussing the image of Skepticism here: http://jackofkent.blogspot.com/2010/07/image-of-skepticism.html

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