25 May 2017

Skepticism: are you willing to change your mind?

Joel Pett (2009) USA Today
"The trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent are full of doubt." 
-- Bertrand Russell

Skepticism has received an increasingly bad name - but most of that is from mis-attribution. 

Skepticism can be usefully distinguished from denialism - even though the word skepticism is used to describe anti-vaxxers to climate-change deniers, 

In some instances, skepticism is used as a synonym of denial as in "I am skeptical about your claims", or "I doubt that what you say is true".

However, skepticism is more uniquely used to describe the notion of uncertainty - as in "I'm uncertain about the truth of what you say", or more simply, "I am uncertain about what is true".


Those that deny a claim are similar in some respects to those whose opinions they oppose. They are both believers, they just believe in opposing views. The genuine skeptic does not have a belief, but rather, is unsure, uncertain, doesn't know. Or perhaps she knows and believes one thing, that being that she does not know.

Believers and skeptics treat facts differently. Believers (on both sides) search typically search for facts to support their beliefs about what is true (i.e., confirmation bias).

Genuine skeptics seek facts first in order to form beliefs. Or at least, they would form beliefs if they did not remain eternally skeptical.

Yes, the skeptics have a pragmatic problem. We humans have to believe something, otherwise we are frozen with indecision that comes from doubt.

And believers - especially those who are more dogmatic - have an epistemic problem. They don't really know even though they believe that they do and behave as if they do.

The strength of skeptics is their ever-ready willingness to change their beliefs based on new facts.

The strength of believers and dogmatists is that they get things done. 

The skeptic is forever wringing her hands asking the question "I wonder what is true?" The dogmatists' failing is she never wonders what is true.

Thought is anathema to action.

If we stand still, if we do not act, we are likely to get run over. But an action is final. We can change our minds, but we cannot change our actions.

The problem with beliefs, opinions, dogmatism is that they can become closed to contrary evidence or arguments. We search for evidence to confirm our beliefs, and if our beliefs are challenged, they are likely to strengthen rather than weaken them (i.e., cognitive dissonance).

And this goes for both the believers and the denialists, the for and the against. Yes, both sides engage in the same unwillingness to change, to consider argumentation, to hear new facts.

A genuine skeptic can never be wrong. Indeed, he ought to be proud to change his mind.

But human nature does not so thoroughly reward skepticism. The believers like to create a false dichotomy - you're with us or you're against us. But they're wrong.

Nonetheless, both sides detest the skeptic. And perhaps for good reason. For certainty is in short supply. And to say otherwise, is simply to engage in denial. In this regard, believers whether for or against a position, are both denialists! They tend to deny the inherent uncertainty that makes their belief untenable.

But then, "I would never die for my beliefs because I might be wrong" (Bertrand Russell).

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