CFIDiscourse #2: On Pseudo-skepticism and the Vice of Open-Mindedness
discourse [n,v]: the use of words to exchange thoughts and ideas
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- Having, or expressing doubt; questioning.
Some examples of usage:
“I’m a skeptic. I’m an evolution skeptic. I don’t think it’s true….”
— Don McLeroy, former chair of Texas State Board of Education,
quoted in “The Revisionaries”
“….being skeptical about the facts purported about
vaccines and vaccine preventable disease”
“Already within those first weeks, loose networks of
researchers and investigators formed via the Internet to generally
become known as the ‘9/11 skeptics.’”
Creationism, anti-vaccinationism and 911-truthism? Yes, the examples fit the dictionary definition, but it’s not exactly Martin Gardner’s or Carl Sagan’s skepticism, is it?
And we have a second term, often heard in close proximity:
- Willing to consider new and different ideas or opinions
This message, for example, was proposed to be inserted as a sticker in science textbooks in one county in Georgia, in 2004:
“This textbook contains material on evolution. Evolution is a theory, not a fact,
regarding the origin of living things. This material should be
approached with an open mind, studied carefully, and
Like skepticism, open-mindedness is considered a virtue – its antonyms are “closed-minded”, “dogmatic” or (when the speaker is trying for a really dismissive insult) “fundamentalist”. No one wants to be any of those, do they?
Except that, in this sort of context, the whole thing is a cheat – an attempt to use the virtues of skepticism and open-mindedness as cover for sloppy thinking, and even outright lies.
There is an awful lot about the universe we don’t know; a great many open questions (to say nothing of questions we don’t even know enough to ask yet). But if you believe that human knowledge advances (or at least, has advanced during recorded history), then you must believe that some questions do get answered; that we now know many things that we didn’t previously know. In antiquity no one knew what shape the earth was. By about 500 BCE several cultures had figured out that the earth was spherical, and even measured its circumference. That knowledge took a while to become universally accepted in European culture (though the myth that everyone was a flat-earther until Columbus proved them wrong is largely a 19th Century invention), but now everyone understands that the earth is (to a close approximation) spherical. The reason the new theory was accepted was that it fit a growing body of evidence. So nowadays when we encounter flat-earthers, we don’t call them “open-minded skeptics of geo-sphericity”. We call them “crackpots”.
Similarly, we now know that the earth is 4.5 billion years old, not 6000; that life evolved rather than being created; that humans are descended from apes (technically: are one branch of the family Hominidae or “great apes”); that the Biblical Deluge never happened; that the earth orbits the sun, not vice versa; that homeopathy doesn’t work; that while vaccines (like any medical intervention) have some risks, they do not cause autism; that the World Trade Center buildings were brought down by fires caused by plane crashes, not by controlled implosion. And for the record: I’m quite confident in asserting that God does not exist, at least in any form even vaguely resembling that of orthodox religion. Other examples abound. So while there are still many open questions, these ones, by all reasonable standards, have been answered.
Am I therefore “closed-minded” on these subjects? By no means: I am a fallibilist; I grant that any and all human knowledge may turn out to be wrong. Logically, there’s even a non-zero chance that the earth might turn out to be flat after all. However, it does not follow that any old “alternative theory” someone wants to propose deserves to be taken as seriously as the best current knowledge on the subject, nor am I obliged to adopt a permanent agnosticism on every controversy. The answers we have were arrived at by examination of evidence – in some cases, evidence gathered by thousands of observers, over a period of literally centuries. So if someone wants me to take seriously the idea that the earth is flat, they need to show me good evidence for it, not just urge me to be “open-minded” on the subject. Moreover, evidence doesn’t just mean cherry-picking a few supposed anomalies around the edges (as creationists and 911
conspiracy-mongers are wont to do), but proffering new evidence, and a theory which explains the evidence we already have better than the current theory (and without egregiously violating parsimony). Now here’s the rub: while I am in principle prepared to be convinced that the earth is flat (or that evolution is false, or that God
exists, or whatever), in practice I have great difficulty imagining what new evidence could come along that would overturn my current view, or even justify a serious re-examination of the question. All the obvious tests have already been performed, and come out negative. Does that make me closed-minded? No, it just makes me rational.
Calling out the Cheat
So how should one interpret expressions of “skepticism” or “open-mindedness” about the usual issues encountered in organized skepticism? There’s a strategy in donning the mantle of The Skeptic – you’re not just a nay-sayer, you’re an independent thinker, one not easily fooled by commonly-held superstitions or received (and therefore unquestioned) wisdom. But in fact, it’s often about promoting an agenda. Evolution “skeptics” are usually conservative Christians, often with theocratic leanings – their “skepticism” is a mask for some very dogmatic attitudes. Homeopaths, and other practitioners of “alternative medicine” need customers (and their customers need to believe their medical problems are being treated). 911 “truthers” seem to be motivated by some combination of politics and the general attraction of conspiracy theories (though at least one prominent Truther seems to make a comfortable living off it). Similarly, appeals to open-mindedness coming from (mostly moderate) religious believers — “Well we don’t really know” — seem intended to fend off challenges from mean old atheists, who are thereby cast as the dogmatic party. As a matter of fact, I think that I do know that there is no god worth worrying about – worth worshipping, obeying, or praying to. (And the ones that are too vague to be worth worrying about, well I don’t worry about them).
Let’s recognize this abuse of words for what it is: a dishonest pseudo-skepticism that conceals an agenda; and rather than a virtuous openness to new ideas, a vice that fondles one’s beliefs while shielding them from questioning.
Steve Watson is a recently retired engineer, embarking upon a second career as a dilettante.