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Pyrrho’s Birth Certificate

[note: I started writing this post right before the Osama bin Laden news hit, but my arguments apply to all the new conspiracies surrounding Osama’s body and death.]

It’s been an eventful few days and they provide an opportunity to discuss a topic dear to my heart: skepticism. You’ve all learned by now that President Obama released his long-form birth certificate. Whenever I debate someone on 9/11 conspiracies, alien visitation, or vaccines I’m continuously astounded by their lack of skeptical inquiry. Yet, inevitably, the credulous advocate questions why I’m not skeptical of the official story. Fair enough. They deserve an answer.

During classical antiquity a group of philosophers traveled to India with Alexander the Great. One of them, Pyrrho, became known as the first skeptic and the tradition that grew from his namesake demanded a suspension of judgement due to the impossibility of knowledge.

If the real nature of things is indeterminable by us, as the epistemological interpretation would have it, then to attempt to determine the nature of things, and to provide cogent grounds for the superiority of one’s own theories, is to attempt the impossible; such matters are simply beyond our grasp.

A conspiracy theorist my appeal to this radical skepticism but it doesn’t provide any shelter for his own beliefs. Yet, the question remains of how to determine the baseline or default for practical skepticism.

Context Matters

The Case of Obama’s Birthplace

Early in the campaign Barack Obama’s birthplace became called into question. Since we have a constitutional requirement (however absurd in our modern context) that our presidents be natural born citizens I don’t mind that he was asked to produce evidence of his birthplace. Putting aside the ugly racial undertones, I’m comfortable with subjecting public officials to increased levels of scrutiny. But once he produced a legally acceptable certificate of live birth (along with Hawaiian birth announcements, etc) it should have been put to rest. He produced a standard of evidence that satisfied the accepted legal benchmark of the country. So how is one supposed to know what level of evidence should satisfy a rational skeptic? Since the context for inquiring about Obama’s birthplace is constitutional, the bar seems to be what is legally accepted in the United States.

Expertise Matters

The Science of Vaccination

You’ve all heard some variation of the saying that even if everyone believes something except one person that one person might still be right. Even expert consensus can be wrong – Einstein overthrew the consensus at the time. To take a specific case, if consensus can be discredited, could scientific studies that claim vaccines safe be wrong?

Many parents remain fearful that vaccines cause the developmental disorder despite multiple studies invalidating any casual link. Yes, it is possible. Possible, doesn’t mean likely. More fundamentally for justified skepticism, skeptics need reasons to doubt. The autism-vaccine link isn’t proven false because experts say so – it is demonstrated by the evidence or more accurately: the “link” has no evidence. Vaccine controversy was justified until the claims of the concerned were tested and disconfirmed. Now strong doubts reveal a closed-mind.

In contrast, Einstein’s theories withstood falsification. It’s also important to recognize that expert consensus is only likely to be overturned by another expert. In order to challenge any prevailing theory, one must understand what one is overturning. For example, it’s telling that those who doubt evolution can’t ever seem to properly explain evolution.

Experience Matters

The Assumption of Naturalism

Skeptics are probably best known for questioning ghosts, telepaths, and gods. Believers must wonder why skeptics are biased against supernatural explanations. There is no reason in principle that supernatural explanations are wrong. Reasonable skepticism only favors natural explanations because no confirmation of the supernatural has ever occurred. Every suspected supernatural mystery in history has either been explained by natural causes or lacks conclusive evidence. Our collective experience suggests that we should wear out all potential material explanations and have unfalsifiable evidence of the magic before we relinquish our doubts. Satoshi Kanazawa, evolutionary psychologist and blogger, tries to dispute Carl Sagan’s famous remark that “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”

The required level of evidentiary standards cannot depend on the conclusion or the contents of the claims, especially, on how politically correct or popular they are.  Until or unless we can derive an absolutely objective definition of what counts as an extraordinary claim, science will fare better if we all forget about Sagan’s dictum and hold all scientific claims to identically high standards of evidence.

He’s right that all scientific claims should be held to the same rigorous standards, but I think he’s missing Sagan’s point (or at least mine). I think any claim in science that doesn’t already fit with our understanding of the world needs to overcome the burden of falsifying the current understanding. New claims that accord with our current models -ordinary ones- don’t need to re-prove their foundational science. For example, when Neil Shubin predicted and discovered the existence of tiktaalik, he didn’t need to go to the extraordinary lengths of proving the underlying science of natural selection. His new detail easily worked within the existing theory. But a study that claims ESP exists seem to contradict our current understanding of biology and physics. If one phenomena negates entire theories, it is extraordinary and we should doubt it until we’re sure the claims and results are valid.

We don’t have a principled bias against the supernatural, only a pragmatic assumption for natural explanations.

Matters of Risk

The Confusion of Natural Food

It’s fashionable to favor organic farming over more modern methods. “Natural” food seems normal for humans, while more modern farming such as genetic modification are by definition out-of-the-ordinary. Our historical experience and scientific expertise clash. Yet, remember that experience was only a factor when evidence didn’t exist. In a sense, experience was our only evidence. The skeptic shouldn’t favor traditional methods because they are more natural. Don’t confuse natural with naturalism.

We must be weary of the naturalistic fallacy. Naturalism wasn’t a baseline because of some special significance of being natural, but because we only had experience with non-supernatural pheonomma. Neither organic nor “artificial” farming methods are supernatural. Before we had any evidence of the safety of genetic modifacation (theoretical or actual) we should have been very skeptical. As more evidence comes in we’re free to evaluate it continuously. Given the importance of our food supply, we’re right to be skeptical of anything that could have a major effect, but it’s important to recognize that traditional agriculture isn’t free from downsides. We’re right to be skeptical of every new advancement in food technology given our lack of experience with it, but every new bit of evidence should temper our doubts. The default shouldn’t be organic or modern agriculture – it’s whatever the present evidence deems acceptable. To know that we may have to refer back to the consensus of dispassionate experts. Risks of danger must be weighed against the potential for wide benefits.

Knowing Why Matters

Skepticism is an Approach

Skeptics shouldn’t expect to always be right. Skepticism isn’t about answers – it’s about doubt. There aren’t any good reasons to believe that a race of shy but super-advanced extraterrestrials mastered interstellar spaceflight beyond even our theoretical understanding of physics who simultaneously lack the ability to prevent crashes. It’s also possible that all world governments have been able to successfully restrict the public and scientific community from learning of or reporting on any conclusive evidence of these inconsistent visitors, but it’s more rational to doubt the conspiracies until further substantiation.

A Modern Pyrrho?

Modern skeptics reject the notion that the world is unknowable. Evidence and logic provide reasons to believe; even Pyrrho should accept that the President was born in Hawaii. Doubt does not excuse ignorance. In order to locate the baseline of justified doubt, we continue to seek out the ground of reason. If it turns out our default is incorrect, the skeptic should feel no shame in adapting to the new understanding of the world.

If we don’t know why holocaust deniers, flat-earthers, and 9/11 truthers are wrong we’ll be forced to treat every crazy claim as equally likely to be true. You might as well cast your vote for Donald Trump.

Categories: Skepticism
  1. May 5, 2011 at 11:43 am

    Hurrah for skepticism. But my first thought upon reading this is, as usual, what have we ever done that the Greeks had not already thought of?
    I might do a series on Greek stoicism, epicureanism, skepticism as the quintessentially timeless philosophies.

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