Saturday, June 16, 2007

Why Skepticism? (Part 4)

Yes, it seems I keep finding new subjects to shoehorn into this series. Sooner or later, I'll probably either make up an index post for it or give it its own unique label (as previously done for my Skeptic's Circle posts). Anyways, this time I'm going to be discussing the subject of skepticism as we use it in contrast to other theories, and talk about what might rightly be termed "pseudoskepticism."

* * * * *

Since getting back to work for the summer, I've had a lot of free time on my hands to randomly browse the portion of the internet that isn't filtered (Hey, I get the job done; that's the important part). Much of my time has been spent doing various things on Wikipedia, from reading up on random information I'll likely never use (though Tremaux's Algorithm might come in handy in some video games if I can figure out a way to leave markings) to helping out improve some articles.

From the very concept of Wikipedia - "The free encyclopedia anyone can edit" - you might suspect that it would get overwhelmed by childish vandals changing random articles to say "Bob is a faggot!" and idealogues changing articles to state their distorted picture as fact. However, 99% of the time when you're on it, you'll tend to find a stable, neutral, well-written encyclopedia article. If you start to look behind the scenes, you'll get an idea of how this works: There's an immense bureaucracy set up to stop vandals, mediate disputes, and even ban unrepentant editors if necessary.

Of course, as old bad users are kicked out, new bad users will inevitably join in. So there's always going to be two editors fighting over the George W. Bush article on whether the lead should call him the "Greatest President" or the "Worst President," overwriting all the revisions of others to "Current President." It should come as no surprise that debates between woos and skeptics also flare up constantly.

Take a look at this case currently in arbitration (the highest level of dispute mediation): Wikipedia:Requests for arbitration/Paranormal. Essentially, the case is a battle between skeptics and woos both trying to get certain articles the way they want them. I won't comment too much on the specifics of the case here, go and read about it yourself if you're interested, but there's one particular part I'd like to point out. For a while, one of the woos was throwing around the term "pseudoskeptic" at all the skeptical editors, partly as a tu qoque for their use of "pseudoscience." Eventually, one of the skeptics decided to see if it was possible to include in this case a ruling relating to the use of this term:


24) "Pseudoskeptic" is a pejorative term and per WP:NPA and WP:CIVIL shouldn't be used to describe other editors or people mentioned in articles (unless it's a quote cited to a source). --Minderbinder 22:58, 25 April 2007 (UTC)

The entire debate on this section is quite long, so I won't quote it all here. However, you can go read it for yourself if you wish. If you do so, here's a little task for you: Using only the bold "Support" or "Oppose" statements, try to guess whether each editor is a skeptic or a woo. This particular issue unsurprisingly fell straight down party lines. There are also a bunch of people neutral to the issue who chimed in, and they all ended up against the word "pseudoskeptic" as well.

The debate here centered around two issues: Whether it's civil, and whether it's accurate. The debate on its civility wasn't as interesting, and is mostly just a Wikipedia let's-work-together-instead-of-fighting thing. It basically just amounted to some claims that it was civil because it had a clear definition and that it wasn't civil, but labels of "pseudoscience" were just as bad. A couple quick counterarguments and we can move past this part: "Bullshit" has a clear definition, but is uncivil. People involved in the debates were never called pseudoscientists; only certain subjects were called pseudoscience.

* * * * *

The question of whether it's accurate is the real meat of the issue. First of all, let's go to the original definition: "Someone who claims to be a skeptic but isn't." Seems simple enough, and a nice parallel to "pseudoscience." However, the way the term's come into popular usage derives a bit more from the way Marcello Truzzi described it: "Some who claims to be a skeptic but holds a position of denial rather than doubt; who takes the negative position rather than an objective position" (paraphrased from his explanation).

Is this an accurate description? Well, that's debatable. I'd go with a "sometimes" here, but before we get into that, I think it's important to know where Truzzi's coming from. Taken from Wikipedia:

Truzzi founded the skeptical journal Explorations and was invited to be a founding member of the skeptic organization CSICOP. Truzzi's journal became the official journal of CSICOP and was renamed The Zetetic, still under his editorship. About a year later, he left CSICOP after receiving a vote of no confidence from the group's Executive Council. Truzzi wanted to include pro-paranormal people in the organization and pro-paranormal research in the journal, but CSICOP felt that there were already enough organizations and journals dedicated to the paranormal. Kendrick Frazier became the editor of CSICOP's journal and the name was changed to Skeptical Inquirer.

After leaving CSICOP, Truzzi started another journal, the Zetetic Scholar. He popularized the term Zeteticism as an alternative to Skepticism, because the term Skepticism, he thought, was being usurped by what he termed "pseudoskeptics". A zetetic is a "skeptical seeker." The term's origins lie in the word for the followers of the skeptic Pyrrho in ancient Greece and was used by flat-earthers in the 19th century. Truzzi's form of skepticism was Pyrrhonism, as apposed to the Academic tradition founded by Plato, which is followed by most scientific skeptics.

Truzzi was skeptical of investigators and debunkers who determined the validity of a claim prior to investigation. He accused CSICOP of increasingly unscientific behavior, for which he coined the term pseudoskepticism. Truzzi stated,

"They tend to block honest inquiry, in my opinion. Most of them are not agnostic toward claims of the paranormal; they are out to knock them. [...] When an experiment of the paranormal meets their requirements, then they move the goal posts. Then, if the experiment is reputable, they say it's a mere anomaly."

So, the rough story is: Truzzi got tempted by some pro-paranormal advocates and tried to get them a voice in the journal. CSICOP lost confidence in him and kicked him out for this. He then lashed back at them with "Well, you guys go too far in denying things! This one might actually be true!" and came up with a pejorative name to call them.

An important note to this story is that Truzzi actually abandoned using the term "skepticism" to describe what he did, instead referring to it as "zeteticism." Now think about it: He's differentiating himself from those who described themselves as "skeptics" by describing himself as a "zetetic." He left the descriptor of "skeptic" intact, and just used a different term for his practice. If he wanted to just claim that his method was better, that would be one thing, but somehow, he then jumped to the claim that the skeptics weren't true skeptics - despite the fact that he just ceded the term to them. If you can follow the logic here, you've got one up on me.

* * * * *

But let's put aside his poor logic in coming up with the term "pseudoskeptic" for the time being. Let's also put aside the issue of the spurious complaints of pseudoskepticism (as Bronze Dog has that covered quite well). Let's talk about what skepticism should be.

Skepticism is a method primarily defined by its goal. This goal is to discern reality. Skepticism (in the theoretical pure form) is the best method of determining what is real and what isn't real. However, we don't know a priori what the best method of determining reality is. Some might even argue that the best method of discerning reality is an aspect of reality itself, and so we'd need to use it in order to best determine it. While this might seem like a Catch 22, we can actually turn this around and use it as a test for a method: The best method to determine reality must, when used to determine what the best method is, result in itself.

Now that we have some actual test to see what might work, let's see how it applies to various methods of gaining knowledge about reality:

Intuition - The problem with using intuition to guess at reality is that it's highly dependant on the person using it. This extends to intuiting the best method for determining reality. While one person might intuit that their intuition is infallible, another might intuit that divine revelation is better, and a third that the scientific method is better. In the end, this fails the test of revealing itself as the best method.

Acceptance - (Essentially, this method is to accept any proposition about reality as true until evidence contradicting it has been found (weaker forms will accept only any plausible explanation, any likely explanation, or any probable explanation).) Using this to determine the best method only results in every proposed method being considered the best. Obviously, this won't work.

Denial - (The opposite of acceptance, this method will never accept anything to be true.) Applying it to this question will then result in denying that it's the best, so this one flies right out the window.

Divine Revelation - (Accept the word of deities on reality.) If we apply this to our question, we run into a problem that the deities might not actually say anything on this subject. For people who claim they have, some say that deities have claimed this method as best, while others have given other answers (such as the scientific method) as best.

Reverse Science - (When given a proposition, attempt to find evidence that it is true. When sufficient evidence has been found, accept that it is true. If sufficient evidence can't be found, declare it false.) This method is the first one that will actually result in itself, mostly due to a huge bias towards confirming propositions inherent in it. If we take the proposition that "Reverse Science is the best method for determining reality," it's simple to find many cases where people operating under this principle have ended up with the correct answer and to contrast it with cases where other methods have resulted in wrong answers. There is one little problem in that if you start with a proposition such as "Divine Revelation is the best method for determining reality," you'll end up declaring that as true, so we'll have trouble arguing that this method is truly the best.

Pyrrhonism - (Also what Truzzi calls "Zeteticism.") This method is characterized as constant inquiry while never accepting anything as true or false. The problem when it comes to our current question is that it then gives us nothing to go on - we have no idea whether it's the best method or not. However, this alone doesn't rule out that it could be (though I'll talk about other problems with it later).

The Scientic Method - (When given a proposition, design an experiment that will return specified results if the proposition is false. If these results are obtained, declare it false. If not, design further experiments to test other ways it might be false. If not of these reveal it to be false, tentatively accept it to be true. Add in replication of experiments for added reliability.)

And I've saved the best for last. Here we have a method that seems to have shown great promise in determining reality. However, can we know for sure that it actually has done so, and hasn't just led us off onto the wrong tangent somewhere? We can't know for sure, but we can use our test here to see if it might be viable.

To scientifically test the proposition that science is the best method of determining reality, one method of experiment would be to set up a controlled environment for various people - a virtual reality if you will, such as a video game world. Program in laws of nature for this world that will affect the people interacting with it. Then, select various people to interact with this world and use different methods to determine its laws. Once their determinations are made, have someone who doesn't know which method resulted in which determinations judge the accuracy of the predicted laws.

A finding that some method resulted in closer laws to reality than science would be evidence against the proposition that science is best. However, finding that science came up with the best laws wouldn't prove it's best, as there could be some untested method that's better. However, if we keep going at it and test every conceivable method against science and find that science is always the best, we could tentatively accept that it is the best.

So, it's possible for science to result in the determination that it's the best method. The problem is that this experiment has never been performed, so we can't say for sure that it is. I'd really like to go out and actually do this, but I don't have the clout or resources to do so (if anyone else can and wants to, please go ahead).

However, despite this setback, we can use some inference from the real world to gauge how science has been doing. We could start with the proposition, "If science is the best method to determine reality, then societies that use science will determine reality better and faster than those who don't," and combine it with the proposition, "Societies who have a better grasp on reality will develop better technology which utilizes it." This results in the hypothesis that societies that emphasize science will show better technological advances than those who don't - which is exactly what we see in the world. Now, while this does present some compelling evidence for science, since this wasn't declared an experiment ahead of time, we have to beware of the Sharpshooter Fallacy and not use this as definitive evidence after the fact.

Now, let's get back to Pyrrhonism, the only other method we haven't ruled out. It comes with a few big problems which should really make us wary of it. The first of these is that it never rules out any proposition. This means that as time goes on, we'll amount more and more possible phenomena and explanations, and we'd have to consider more and more in solving any particular problem. In the end, it just gets overwhelming. We have no method of narrowing down the list.

Science, on the other hand, provides us a method of discarding bad theories: By testing them and finding contradictory evidence or not finding expected supporting evidence. This method of discarding theories isn't just something claimed by science, it's also deductively supported by some elementary logic.

In the end, Pyrrhonism gives many explanations of reality, some of which might be right. Science, on the other hand, gives us a few explanations of reality of which most are probably right. Science also allows us to devote time and money on the theories we think are most probably right so that we can delve deeper and expand on them rather than repeatedly performing the same test to show that Astrology still doesn't work.

It should be little surprise then that skepticism as practiced by me and the majority of this community uses science as the core method and is thus commonly labeled "scientific skepticism." There are many other practices that add into this to refine it (such as demanding that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence - one of Truzzi's positive contributions to the cause), but at the heart, it's just science.

* * * * *

So, this leaves us with the question of what exactly pseudoskeptics are. Scrapping Truzzi's biased definition, we go back to pseudoskeptics being people who claim to be skeptics but aren't. As I see it, there are two types of people who might fit into this category.

The first of these is anyone who starts a post with "I used to be a skeptic but..." These people generally use this to try to lend some credibility to whatever woo they're promoting, by implying that there was something that convinced them the woo was superior. Many of them, however, fail to understand what being a skeptic actually means, and that if the evidence actually supports it, it's possible to be a skeptic and believe in anything. When they say they're no longer a skeptic, they're really just shooting themselves in the foot with this line of argument and admitting that they no longer care about what the evidence shows.

The other type of these people is actually not far off from what Truzzi characterized as pseudoskeptics. These are people who use "skeptic" as a euphemism for "denier." A common modern form is the "Global Warming skeptic," who isn't just being skeptical about the issue and looking at what the evidence points to, but is instead denying Global Warming (either on political grounds or because it seems implausible to them at first glance) and using spurious arguments to support their assertion.

It might not be easy, but it's my hope we can retake the term "pseudoskeptic" to refer to these types of people. It might not be easy; the term's picked up a lot of baggage. But if we backed off from a fight because it wasn't easy, we wouldn't be skeptics, now would we?


Bob said...

childish vandals changing random articles to say "Bob is a faggot!"

The nerve of some people.

"The first of these is anyone who starts a post with "I used to be a skeptic but..." These people generally use this to try to lend some credibility to whatever woo they're promoting, by implying that there was something that convinced them the woo was superior. Many of them, however, fail to understand what being a skeptic actually means, and that if the evidence actually supports it, it's possible to be a skeptic and believe in anything. When they say they're no longer a skeptic, they're really just shooting themselves in the foot with this line of argument and admitting that they no longer care about what the evidence shows."

I've got a post in the works about the theist who claims "I used to be an atheist," and you're reasoning here runs parallel to mine, as if I could substitute "atheist" for "skeptic" and "theism" for "woo."

Infophile said...

It's amazing the parallel of Skeptic/Woo to Atheist/Theist. Makes you think there just might be something about atheist that draws reality-seekers to it, doesn't it?

Anonymous said...

sigh... is not reality simply the repeatable observation of data over time. Hence the problem with reality. You end up geting caught up in endless debates about the meaning of the data rather then the data itself. All of which leads to bias. Not to mention problems where observation is called into question as being misleading. IE interpurtation of Data as Data. For instance a religious person describing how a Deity talks to them, at which time another person categorizes it as delusional where as someone else takes it as devine. Of which niether oppinion is wrong or correct and the skeptic is left in a lurk only able to say maybe. Give me imperitive data any day of the week.

Sonny said...

Your so-called "Skeptic's Circle" and CSICOP are pseudo-skeptics or neo-skeptics, not skeptics, and you know very precisely that's what you are. You know that your position is nothing anyone who knows the meaning of "skeptic" or "skeptical" would confuse with skepticism, whether they go by the philosophical traditional meaning or the colloquial meaning. You know that no one would have thought of calling someone who attacks unconventional views and defends orthodoxy and convention a "skeptic" unless some clever defender of conventionality had brought that word into the discussion.

How do I know that you know that? I'm no longer such a skeptic that I don't trust the evidence of my own senses and reason. I can see all over the article and others like it that you pseudo-skeptics or neo-skeptics are trying to weasel out of the normal meanings of the word "skeptic" and to twist it into some meaning of support for science and the academic tradition that it never had before.

I know that it's futile to expect self-proclaimed "skeptics" to change their use of language. They're smart enough to know it's inaccurate and yet they like to do it anyway because they like the sound of the word and how it seems to influence others. It's disingenuous rhetoric and that's the way they like it.

Despite my strong opinion on this, I have nothing to say in favor of beliefs in the paranormal. I'm a contrarian and iconoclast and critical thinker, as much as I can be. In your rhetoric, I would be called a "denier." What do I deny? What do I reserve the right to question and to laugh at and to doubt and to choose to believe the opposite?

What've you got?

Infophile said...

I'll address a few claims you actually make, ignoring the simple claims of "No, you're the pseudoskeptics!"

I can see all over the article and others like it that you pseudo-skeptics or neo-skeptics are trying to weasel out of the normal meanings of the word "skeptic" and to twist it into some meaning of support for science and the academic tradition that it never had before.

Plato doesn't count? Besides, what's the big deal with academinc tradition anyway? We don't even speak the same language as they did back then, so we'd expect words to change and take on new meanings. Maybe you'd like to actually address one of the big points of my post, which was about what skepticism should be.

What've you got?

Results. Science (aided by skeptics weeding out bad theories) has made immense strides in improving the world. Skepticism has also outed many frauds throughout the years, and in doing so has saved people money and their lives.

EarReverence said...

I appreciate your criticism of Truzzi, I do think using the term "true skeptic" was probably a mistake. It probably would have been more useful if he had said that some skeptics are not model-relativists or some skeptics behave as mono-model fundamentalists. What you see as a problem, "The problem when it comes to our current question is that it then gives us nothing to go on - we have no idea whether it's the best method or not.", I see as a useful approach to expanding consciousness. The model agnostic (or zetic) seeks to edit less and tune in more. We look for events that do not neatly fit accepted models since they will teach us to make a better or more useful model tomorrow, and perhaps an even more useful one the day after that. The model agnostic attitude refuses total belief or total denial and regards models as tools to be used when appropriate. It does not regard any model as better than any other model but asks how a model serves or fails to serve those who use it. When one model is held statically between ourselves and experience, the number of signals drops, no (or slow) revision occurs, and intelligence and creativity correspondingly declines. From my experience when multiple models are available, and I'm consciously involved in my perceptual bets, the number of signals consciously apprehended increases, and I'm able to act more creatively and expand consciousness more rapidly. Some may find this approach overwhelming, I on the other find it exhilarating and at times enlightening. I'm quite under-whelmed with a narrowing mono-model approach. A model relativist may not use the term "bad theory", but he can recognize a theory's relative usefulness based on the particular context in which he or she is working. Zeticism also allows us to devote time and money on the theories we think are most useful so that we can delve deeper and expand on them rather than repeatedly performing the same test to show that Astrology still doesn't work. The key here is to move away from good and bad value judgments and consider usefulness in relation to context. Trans-personally, I think the term "pseudo-skeptic" is probably no more useful than the term "true-skeptic". At this point in time I tend to see mono-model skeptic and model-relativist (or multi-model) skeptic as more useful descriptions of each approach, but that perspective could change tomorrow.

EarReverence said...

I just checked back to my original post and noticed I misspelled zetetic. Sorry... So in case you were wondering, I'm not zetetical about spelling.

Looking back on the original post, I'm not sure how clear I was, but I was trying to make a point that any model we make of the universe should not be confused with the universe itself. This recognizes that any model we make does not fully describe the universe, but describes what our brians are capable of saying at this point in time.

EarReverence said...

It appears that zetetics differentiate themselves from skeptics by demonstrating a willingness to consider the gray area between so called "good' theories and "bad" theories: CONTEXT. This gray area between two polar opposites is certainly not “woo”, but what semanticists call the "excluded middle". Scientific skeptics promote excluding the middle (context) apparently because it is just too “overwhelming” to consider. This presents a few major problems. Unfortunately, or fortunately, reality just isn’t that simple. Reality is filled with context. For instance, something as seemingly simple as the boiling point of water will change in relation to contextual differences such as elevation or barometric pressure. Investigating and considering context moves us away from a simplified, even moralistic “good” theory/”bad” theory fundamentalism and allows us to keep an objective eye on the gray excluded middle that the scientific skeptic may choose to ignore simply because they consider such a process “overwhelming”. Infophile says that the goal of the skeptic is to discern reality. The zetetic has the same goal, but does not agree that it can be done by abstractly narrowing it down to a “good” theory/“bad” theory dichotomy. Woo-free zetetics promote an ongoing open objectivity to observable contextual information. The zetetic discerns reality with all of its nuance by staying grounded in context, and without necessarily abstracting theories to categories of “good” and “bad”. The zetetic is, well dare I say, skeptical about the usefulness of such categorization in the context of discerning reality. Basically, the zetetic is more inclined to consider the usefulness of multiple models in relation to the context in which he or she is working, playing, or discerning…

EarReverence said...

Calling all skeptics! In culmination of my 3 previous posts on the "Why Skepticism? (Part 4)" thread, I can't help but ask all you skeptics - Why not Zeteticism?