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.