It’s not what you believe right now that matters most.

Imagine the following scene: There is a stream of water that stretches as far across as the eye can see. In one direction there is a perilous waterfall, and in the other, dangerous rocks. You are compelled to cross it – staying on the safety of land is not an option.

The stream seems calm on the surface, but you can clearly see people being swept away by an undercurrent which seems to run in different directions as people cross the stream. Some people are being swept over the waterfall while some are floating in the other direction uncontrollably until they smash up against the jagged rocks. But looking straight ahead, you find what appear to be some safe stones leading to the bank on the other side of the stream, and some people have found a way to reach those stones one-by-one, as they progress across. You aren’t sure what awaits you on the other bank, but you know you can’t remain at the one you’re on. You have to cross.

The most important concern you have right now is how to cross safely. It seems that there are ways that work, and ways that don’t. You aren’t sure what to do, but you have to figure it out.

You contemplate this for a while, and then an idea occurs to you… you need a *method* of crossing. You realize that you can track the undercurrents by watching people float across, and in doing so, you can swim in the right direction to the next safe stone. In this way, you can progress across the stream indefinitely without being swept away in either direction.

As you cross, you find people discussing how to safely navigate the stream. The voices are more numerous than you can count, each seeming to have their own idea of where the safest place in that stream is.

  • A lady is waste deep in the water. She is drifting toward the waterfall and confidently assures you that the water will always steer you in the right direction. She decides that if the water steers you over the side, then that’s the right place to go.
  • A man swims furiously toward the jagged rocks, screaming that the waterfall is terribly dangerous and the best way to avoid it is to cling on to one of the razor sharp rocks. He insists that the jagged stones are the right place to be.
  • A man stands on one of the safe stones. He got there by closing his eyes and jumping, and suggests you do the same. He invites you to join him on his safe stone, declaring it the only good place to stand.
  • A woman floating by tells you that it doesn’t matter – the stones and the water, the waterfall and the rocks, are all equally safe, and that everything will be alright no matter what you do.

A cacophony of other voices join in, each of them standing in a location they consider safest, insisting that where they stand is the right place, and all those who stand elsewhere have made a grave error.

The one thing you notice about all of the people you encounter is that they all seem to endorse where they stand at that moment, even those who have occasionally moved. None of them seem to be concerned with how they got there, or how (or if) they will take the next step. Indeed, the overwhelming majority of them are convinced that where they are currently positioned is the only right place to be, and that being anywhere else either means certain doom, or is a complete waste of time. They all appear to be planting their metaphorical flag in the spot where they are, and they banter incessantly about which place is the right place to be. Even the few who agree with each other seem to be standing on different stones.

Meanwhile, you track the currents. You step in the water and swim in just the right direction to get to the next safe stone. You look back and observe you last stone you were on… you watch as the water rises over it… you realize that it wasn’t safe to begin with, and you are grateful that you didn’t stay there. You realize that if the safety of the last stone was illusory, perhaps the safety of this one is as well. You track the currents. You swim to the next stone. You remain in motion. You progress.

Then you look back and notice that many of the people who were bantering about the correctness of their position have been swept away by the changing currents and water level, either over the waterfall, or into the deadly rocks. You continue moving forward to safer stones, as those left behind continue insisting how correct their position is.

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When Reason Isn’t Enough

As someone who routinely and vocally advocates for reason and speaks out against all forms of irrationality and faith-based beliefs, I frequently encounter the attempted counter-point that efforts at exercising reason are no guarantee for success, with my interlocutor citing numerous examples of strict adherence to the process of reason resulting in errant information and conclusions.

And it’s true. It might surprise you to hear me say this, but when investigating truth-claims and propositions, when engaged in science or forensics, when trying to ascertain what is real and what isn’t… even the strictest application of reason is no guarantee that ones conclusion will lead to the right answer.

Finding out the “truth” requires more than just an effective process. It also requires complete and correct information. That is the wild-card that limits the certainty of any conclusion made using the process of reason.

This is one reason that “proof” is a word that is typically limited to the realm of math, or math-based pursuits (such as chess). Rational skeptics do not deal in “proof”; they deal in the preponderance of the evidence. For example, I believe the moon landing happened because the evidence for it is, in my mind, convincing. However, it is possible that future discoveries may reveal the moon landing to have been a hoax. It’s not likely, but it’s possible. Therefore the moon landing is not proven… but proof is not a prerequisite for rational belief.

(Proof is possible in the realm of math because complete information is given up front, and the possible introduction of new information is not considered. For example, if you want to know what the simplest way to express 2+2 is, the answer is 4. This is easily demonstrated, and there is no possible “new” information that can change the answer. No discovery will change the answer, because the concepts are fixed by their very definition.)

Reason is a process that always works. Its ability to provide results is limited to the quality and completeness of the information at its disposal. It is vital to recognize that this is not a limitation of the process of reason, but rather a limitation of the human condition. As long as our access to information is limited, and as long as the quality of the information we do have access to is subject to imperfection, reasons ability to lead us to truth will be limited.

I once read an amusing quote from Charles Babbage, the man who originated the concept of a programmable computer. His efforts to educate to populace on the concept of a device that would take data and process it into usable information were often met by objections that resembled the very same objection we find against reason today.

“It doesn’t always produce the right answers!” – This is a vague and misguided indictment of the idea that [(a good process) + (good and complete information) = (the right answer)]. It’s vague because it doesn’t specify the point of failure, and its misguided because those who invoke it tend to believe that the failure was in reasons ability to process information rather than in the quality or completeness of the information itself. Babbage’s amusing recollections tell the story:

On two occasions I have been asked, “Pray, Mr. Babbage, if you put into the machine wrong figures, will the right answers come out?” … I am not able rightly to apprehend the kind of confusion of ideas that could provoke such a question.

It’s amusing because it was a genial way of saying “This is the stupidest f***ing question I’ve heard in my life.”, and it’s also instructive because it was the first statement expressing what would later become a computing truism: Garbage in = Garbage out.

To wit: If you are looking for the simplest way to express 2+2, then you had better punch the correct buttons on your calculator, in the correct order, if you want the correct answer. Punching any of the wrong buttons, failing to push all the correct buttons, or pushing all of the correct buttons in an incorrect sequence will cause the calculator to display something other than the correct answer. This does not mean the calculator is unreliable; on the contrary, it means that the calculator works.

And so it is with reason. Bad (or incomplete) information into the process will result in bad (or incomplete) information coming out.

Some years ago I saw a fantastic movie that illustrates the principle that reason can only provide results as reliable as the available information – “The Life of David Gale”.

You can read the plot of the movie in the Wiki article if you like, but I recommend you watch the movie. Long story short – David Gale and a co-conspirator devise a plan to prove that, no matter how certain one believes they that they have accurate and complete information, there is always the possibility that new information may be discovered that changes everything. It also speaks an important truth about how this principle applies to capital punishment (to wit: the imposition of a sentence that cannot be revoked even if exculpatory information is subsequently obtained is a bad idea).

The bottom line is that no amount of examples where incorrect or incomplete information led to incorrect or incomplete results is an indictment of the process of reason. Sometimes one doesn’t know all the relevant facts. Sometimes the information one has available is incorrect. Sometime you will accidentally punch the wrong numbers into the calculator. This means that no matter how committed one is to reason, one will be wrong from time to time. This is because the process of reason works, not because it doesn’t.

Note 1: There is another element of reason/logic required in order to obtain truth, which I have omitted from this essay for the sake of brevity – the mechanism (or machine) that is applying the process must be in good working order. If the physical parts of the brain, calculator, computer, etc… are broken or otherwise damaged, the value of the output is diminished. This is an obvious issue that few people would challenge, so for the sake of this essay I allowed for the assumption that the physical mechanism in question is in good working order.

Note 2: “The Life of David Gale” wasn’t exactly a box-office smash, but I enjoyed it and I think it speaks well to my point.

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.