virus: skeptics

Tue, 09 Feb 1999 15:50:17 -0800

David McFadzean wrote:

> If faith means to believe in something without complete logical proof, than
> I agree.

I don't think the point of contention is over what conclussions can and can't be reached deductively. I'm not a logician, but it is my understanding that when you talk of logical proof, you're talking about establishing the truth or falsity of a proposition via a process of deduction. In order to deduce something you must ALREADY KNOW at least two things.

For example, here's a basic form for a deductive argument:

Premise 1) If A then B.

Premise 2) A.

Conclusion) B

If we know that both premises are true, then we have logical proof for the truth of our conclusion, but how do we establish the truth of the premises? Well, we can derive them deductively from other premises, but to get the whole enterprise rolling we need KNOW a few things. How do we know these things?

> But that definition misses out on some important distinctions,
> namely the reasons behind the belief. Don't you think scientists have some
> good reasons to believe the universe is knowable? Why do you think they
> use inductive reasoning?

Because they're scientists and science, as an induction-based enterprise, was nicely chugging along before the birth of any living scientist. Those who are alive and practicing science today (a group with more members than the club of dead scientists) entered a game in progress. They didn't start the game or lay down the basic operational parameters. If they decide to play another game, one that does not depend on inductive inferrence, then they cease to be scientists.

Why did they choose science? For a variety of reasons, no dobut, but my suspicion is that for most it was a bug like art, or music, or theater. That's just what clicked for them.

> Even without making any value judgements on the
> validity or efficacy of beliefs, you have to admit that people believe
> things for different reasons. Insisting that they all fall into the
> category of "faith" does nothing to advance understanding.


> Skeptics emphatically do not hold truth above everything else. When is the
> last time you heard of a group of skeptics descending on an amusement park
> to debunk the rides, proving to the poor deluded thrill seekers that the
> roller coaster is in fact not nearly as dangerous as they had believed?
> (Or did I miss that special issue of Skeptical Inquirer? ;-)

It's true that skeptics don't make a habit of debunking obvious and admitted fictions, but there are some fanatical skeptics out there who are fervently committed to a worldview that does not admit the possibility of a range of phenomena which are today considered "paranormal." I've heard these skeptics employ the worst logical fallacies and sophistry in support of their worldview.

Skepticism is a useful tool, and I'm not claiming that anyone who is skeptical about weird tales or asks for extraordinary evidence before accepting extraordinary claims is a fanatic like I described in the previous paragraph, but let me tell you about a person experience that I had with Paul Kurtz.

As I mentioned in a post last week, there was a time in my life when I was a staunch athiest and skeptic. I was attending Penn Valley Community College in Kansas City, Missouri and taking every class taught by Verl Meurer. Verl was (and still is, I assume) a member of CSICOP and the founder of a local skeptical organization. He was a magician, and he would perform a "psychic" act for large audiences in which he would do a few tricks and convince a good portion of the audience that he had psychic abilities before revealing that he was a fake and launching into his sermon on skepticism and materialism. While I was at Penn Valley, some of the big names in Skepticism came through; including James Randi and Paul Kurtz.

When Kurtz was there, he gave a lecture to a large audience, and durring the Q&A the audience peppered him with questions which took the form of, "Yeah, but what about..." bigfoot, Atlantis, Ramtha, etc. Dr. Kurtz had standard replies to all of these which I'd heard before, so I wasn't really listening. Then someone let fly with, "Yeah, but what about Whitley Strieber?"

Now this was '88 or '89. The movie version of "Communion" had not yet been released, and I had never heard of Whitely Strieber, so my interest was piqued. Paul Kurtz responded to the question with, "Whitely Strieber claims that he was anally raped." He said nothing after that until the person who had asked the original question followed up on it. It wasn't until the follow-up questions that I realized that they were talking about a "close encounter" experience. The "alien abduction" meme was still a small fry and those two words didn't go together in my consciousness at the time. This was the pre-X-files era, before the public conception of extra-terrestrials had mutated from the spooky but ultimately benificent Speilbergian architype to the current pro bono proctologist model, so the idea that aliens would kidnap someone and stick something up their ass was a real shocker.

Paul Kurtz's only response to the whole of Whitley Strieber's account was to pick out the single most incredulous detail and present it with no context or explanation and assume that that would be enough to poison the well. In the late 80's, that particular approach to that particular question worked, but even at the time, even as one of the audience members most sympathetic to his agenda and receptive to his message, that cheap trick set off my bullshit detectors.

Paul Kurtz is an intelligent and thoughtful man, and I don't think that he is an unthinking proponent of a mundane worldview as a result of being sucked into a cult of personality, but many of the people who are inspired by Kurtz, James Randi, and the other charasmatic celebrities of the skeptical elite and seek to follow their example are not as thoughful or as sophisticated, and they believe what they're idols tell them to believe and support that worldview by any means available. These guys are level-2 poster children, and an encounter with one or more of them can be a real eye-opener.

> Can anyone explain to me how skeptics got such
> a bad rep? I suppose injudicious use of logic as a weapon has something to
> do with it (thanks for that insightful post, Reed).

People who practice a moderate and reasonable level of skepticism in their lives probably don't identify themselves first and formost as skeptics. They more likely think of themselves as writers, doctors, programmers, movie-lovers, vegatarians, mothers, boyfriends and a long list of other roles before they get down to "skeptic." The people who put "skeptic" at the top of the list in most social encounters tend to be the scary ones, and one encounter with this variety can put a serious stigma on the skeptics one meets or hears about subsequently.

And, sure, skeptics are also on the oposite side of the fence when it comes to a great many of our cherrished (but less than officially rational ) beliefs, for which many of them do get a bum wrap.

In summary:

People, including skeptics, hold beliefs for a variety of reasons. Some self-proclaimed skeptics are more interested in asserting their cherrished worldview than in rational discourse or inquiry and they will abuse logic as flagrantly as any fundie in the pursuit of their aim. These types of skeptics (which you may well argue are not being at all skeptical in their approach) can damage the reputation and credibility of skeptics in general.

There's another $0.02 I've thrown in. I should have about a dime in the pot by now.