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.

Should rational skepticism be abandoned in emergency situations?

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.

For this reason, it is common practice among skeptics to, as a general rule, withhold judgment on any truth claim until enough time has passed to have all of the relevant, discoverable facts fleshed out. A seasoned skeptic also understands that, as omniscience is impossible, there always remains the possibility of new discoveries that may warrant a revision of ones appraisal of the proposition, even after reasonable certainty has been established.

And this is a reasonable, practical approach under normal circumstances. But is it the most practical approach in all circumstances?

An emergency situation is a situation in which a chain of events has been initiated that, if left un-interfered with, will result in an undesired or adverse outcome. It doesn’t matter whether the emergency situation is active (there’s a guy with a gun to my head saying he’ll kill me unless I give him my wallet) or passive (I’m bleeding badly and I need a bandage), the nature of an emergency is such that if it’s left unaffected, an undesired outcome will result.

Emergencies, by their nature, have a critical time constraint where action is concerned. What that constraint is, is not always known, but the fact that such a constraint exists must be.

As skeptics, we are conditioned to ensure that all propositions are accepted as true only when appropriate evidence is presented. Sometimes that takes time and thorough investigation. Clearly in emergency situations this isn’t always possible. How, then, can rational skepticism be applied? Are we to believe all claims of emergencies, since the claimant has no chance at providing the necessary evidence within the time available before the critical moment of an adverse outcome? Should we refuse to believe claims of emergencies, citing skepticism as an out-of-context value that trumps all other values?

Clearly neither answer provides a universally desired outcome. People frequently manufacture “emergencies”, so the former option makes the skeptic vulnerable to fraud. On the other hand, people (including skeptics!) frequently find themselves in legitimate emergency situations where the provision of sufficient evidence is untenable, so the latter answer fails.

The key to solving this mystery is to remember that one need not fully accept a claim in order to respond appropriately to it.

If a man tells me that he’s having chest pains, I do not need to fully accept his claim in order to call an ambulance. If a child runs into the yard and tells me his sister is drowning in the backyard pool, I do not need to accept his claim with certainty in order to make a mad dash to the backyard and jump into the pool if I see someone in it. If a woman tells me she was just raped by a friend of mine at a party, I do not need verification in order to contact the authorities and get her whatever medical attention, moral support, and crisis intervention/police support she might require.

The nature of an emergency situation is such that action must be taken immediately in order to interrupt a potentially disastrous chain of events. Neither belief, acceptance, or certainty is required for action. A rational judge of values will generally know right away that the price of demanding evidence for claims of an emergency situation is almost always higher than the risk one assumes by simply acting on it. 

Might the kid be lying about his sister drowning? Sure, he might be. But I’d rather find out I’ve been pranked than to find out I allowed a kid to drown.

Might the guy be lying about his chest pains? Sure. But I’d rather find out I’ve had the wool pulled over my eyes than to find out I’ve let a man die who I could’ve helped live.

Might the woman have lied about being raped? Sure, she might have. But I’d rather find out that I’ve been the victim of fraud than to find out I’ve failed to assist a victim of rape.

This might help to clear up some of the murkiness being purported by our friends over at Freethought Blogs, where the false dichotomy of “either you believe the purported victim and help her or you withhold judgment and abandon her has been the new line in the sand between Atheism plussers and their antagonists. The fallacy here is in the dishonest “package-dealing” of the withholding of judgment with “believing the rapist”, as though a refusal to accept one side uncritically is tantamount to going all-in with the other.

Nothing could be farther from the truth, and it is perfectly consistent with the “You’re either with us or you’re against us” mentality that pervades the FTB cult.

The fact that there is a risk associated with refusing to act when someone claims an emergency situation means that there is a value judgment required when such a claim is made.  The fact that the cost associated with the risk one assumes by refusing to act is often higher than the risk associated by acting means that it is often in a skeptics best interest to act in the absence of information.

It is for this reason that the statement “I am withholding judgment on that claim” does not translate into “I am refusing to act on the claim”, despite what our friends over in the pseudo-skeptic community might have us believe.

To act on someone’s claim that an emergency situation is taking place (even while withholding judgment on the truth of that claim) is consistent with rational skepticism. To claim that one must immediately decide whether they believe the claim or not before acting is a false dichotomy, and those who propagate this false dichotomy do so for the usual reasons – to justify moral condemnation toward all those who won’t accept their claims on faith.

To put it simply: When someone says they need help or that they’ve been victimized, in the absence of any other information, a rational person acts as though the claim is true. No need to know whether or not it is. And it is unjustified to demand that the claim be believed. Belief is not a prerequisite for appropriate action.

Thus we see the problem with the demand that one must automatically believe a claim of victimization such a rape.  First off, when someone claims they’ve been raped by someone else, it is logically impossible to believe the victim’s story uncritically without accepting the accused party’s guilt uncritically. The problem with that is obvious. But more importantly, as we’ve seen, it is not necessary to do so in order to respond appropriately.

If someone claims they’ve been raped (or otherwise victimized), get them the help they need right away. Alert those who need to be alerted. Continue providing support. That is the extent of your role. If a specific accusation is involved, let the professionals sort out the facts and handle them appropriately. Determining someone’s guilt without sufficient evidence is neither your right nor your responsibility.

Skepticism should be applied in all situation. A skeptical position does not require inaction, insensitivity, or any hesitation to help someone in need. There is no reason, ever, to check your skepticism at the door.