The most commonly overlooked aspect of skepticism (or, why PZ Myers doesn’t understand skepticism)

PZ Myers recently blogged about how a person known to him confided a story to him about how she had been raped by a prominent member of the skeptic community.

Now I’ve been sitting here trying to resolve my dilemma — to reveal it or not — and goddamn it, what’s dominating my head isn’t the consequences, but the question of what is the right thing to do. Do I stand up for the one who has no recourse, no way out, no other option to help others, or do I shelter the powerful big name guy from an accusation I can’t personally vouch for, except to say that I know the author, and that she’s not trying to acquire notoriety (she wants her name kept out of it)?

So he told the story as it was told to him. Well, the important parts, anyway.

Of course, the blogosphere erupted. Those who don’t much care for PZ pointed out to him that it’s a pretty big deal to level unverifiable accusations from an anonymous source at someone whose career might be affected by such accusations. Those who have always liked PZ immediately ran to his defense. That was to be expected.

Much of the furious debate raging about the charges involve pointing out to PZ that it is inappropriate to take an anonymous, third-hand account at face value, particularly where such a grave charge is concerned.  As a general rule, the consensus on that side of the debate is that no matter how serious the charges, we don’t just check our skepticism at the door. If we don’t just take the word of anonymous third-hand accounts from other, we shouldn’t be expected to accept it from PZ. Moreover, a purported skeptic like him ought to know that.

PZ’s faction seems to believe that a charge this serious warrants an immediate suspension of our normal skeptical standards. With a serious charge such as rape, you ought to just believe it. Take it on faith, you know?

(I’ve already written on why one can and should remain a skeptic while still acting appropriately, so I won’t get into that here.)

In fact, PZ and his band of merry men have gone out of their way now to argue against skepticism (where women’s claims are involved, of course!), deriding “Extreme Skepticism (TM)” as too much of a good thing, I guess, and instead branding it “denialism“.

See, when you require evidence for a scientific or philosophic claim, it’s skepticism.

When you require evidence for a criminal complaint, it’s denialism. Got it? Good.

So PZ writes a little short sketch called “SkepticDoc MD” which delighted his devoted fan base. It’s a little story about a doctor who won’t believe anything his patients tell him and demands concrete proof for everything. Funny, right?

I don’t know what it is, but some skeptics have adopted this calcified attitude towards what constitutes reasonable evidence and reasonable claims. It seems to me that these are nothing but excuses contrived to justify denying reality, and that they are actually toxic to any kind of functional, societally useful version of skepticism; this is the skepticism of the status quo.

He begins his little story by immediately showing off his ability to drop context.

What if people actually operated as these advocates for purblind skepticism suggest? So I paid a call on SkepticDoc, M.D., the very acme of this form of skepticism. Here is how the visit went.

PZ: Doctor, lately I’ve been experiencing shortness of breath and an ache in my left shoulder when I exert myself…

SkepticDoc: Whoa, whoa, whoa, slow down! See the name on the shingle? It’s SkepticDoc. Do you have anything other than your feelings to justify wasting my time here?

See that little trick he pulled there? The man complained about a sensation he had been experiencing. To feel something in this context means to experience it through sensory apparatus. But SkepticDoc responds by using the word feeling in an emotional context.

Those are two very different things. But what’s a little context dropping for the sake of good satire, right?

PZ: What? I’m telling you my symptoms…

SkepticDoc: Yeah, yeah, your feelings. Do you have some physical evidence that you felt pain? Some independent corroboration that you felt this remarkable “ache”? So far, this is just gossip.

Here PZ equivocates first-hand experience with “gossip”,which is, by definition, the second hand telling of a story. Bad, bad skeptic.

I won’t parse through the entire sad attempt at comedy (it just gets worse from there). But the claims of Extreme Skepticism(TM) and denialism got me to thinking about one of the most commonly overlooked aspects of critical thought and skepticism. And it made me realize how poorly understood skepticism is even among those who claim to be skeptics.

I described skepticism in an earlier post.

Skepticism is the deliberate act of ensuring that one’s degree of certainty regarding the truth of any given proposition is proportionate to the weight of the evidence supporting the proposition, without reference to personal feelings or conjecture.

Skepticism is widely understood to be the refusal to believe something without evidence. But this is not the whole story. The flip side of skepticism is the refusal to disbelieve something for which compelling evidence exists.

Galileo provided a fantastic example of this aspect of skepticism. His telescope and calculations presented unmistakable evidence for heliocentricity. Although he officially recanted (on pain of death), he took his knowledge to the grave with him. In his heart, he absolutely refused to relinquish his belief in the evidence presented to him by his senses and reasoning mind.

But it’s not one or the other. Since new discoveries are always possible, absolute certainty of the truth or falsehood of any proposition is inappropriate. Certainty can only properly be held in degrees, and reason demands that the degree of certainty be proportionate to the amount of evidence for or against the proposition. That’s the “rational” aspect of rational skepticism.

And that’s how I know PZ and his ilk do not understand skepticism. If they did, they would know that extreme skepticism would be nothing more than scaling your certainly with extreme precision. It would not merely be doubting, as they have described it, but rather extremely well-calibrated degrees of certainty.

And that would be great! I’d take extremely well-calibrated, extremely rational, extremely well-researched skepticism over normal, frivilous skepticism any day of the week.

The caricature of skepticism presented by PZ and celebrated by his cronies was all the evidence I needed to see that PZ Myers is a sham of a skeptic and no intellectual ally to anyone who values critical thought. He’s a fraud with a gossip column. That’s all he is.


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