Crossing the Chasm


Scientific skepticism does not represent a tablet of conclusions that proponents must subscribe to. It is a method for the critical analysis and evisceration of claims about the world around us, whether we agree with those claims or not. This method includes knowledge about logical fallacies, cognitive biases, inferential statistics and a broad knowledge of scientific methodology and key results. Such a skeptical method also has to be symmetrical. Displaying immense incredulity against contradicting arguments, while implicitly accepting supporting data with little, if any, critical investigation is pseudoskepticism. It is a failure of reason.

Because scientific skepticism does not exist in a societal vacuum, philosophical and political issues are bound to bleed over to a certain extent. There is a fundamental difference between science and scientific skepticism on the one hand, and politics on the other. While controversy is a permanent feature of the landscape, the overarching methodologies and epistemology of science and scientific skepticism is relatively straightforward compared to that of religion and politics.

In politics, it is not really clear what methodology or epistemology reign in practice. To what degree do politicians consult the literature or their base voters? Their personal belief system? To be sure, we can carry out research and make arguments regarding the best political policy to solve a given social problem (although there will obviously be confounders that may or may not be eliminated). This, however, assumes that we agree on (1) what the problem is, (2) the relevant values and also (3) how the outcome of these policy decisions should be operationalized. The general idea with politics is that you present what you believe and what you want to do when you are elected, find and spend campaign money and hope people will vote for you. So in a way, politics has skipped much of the foundation for philosophical and scientific investigations, thereby floating unsuspended in the air, only to be held up by popular opinion and wealthy donors. In politics, conclusions and beliefs seem to matter more than evidence-based policies. Sure, there are arguments, but in the end, those are too often based on ideological assumptions, not evidence.

The struggle against racism, sexism, homophobia etc. and the struggle against political policy that promote such nonsense can probably be included embraced by scientific skepticism without any particular problems. To a large degree, this has already occurred. Why was this an easy merger? Well, proponents of these beliefs usually make claims about the world around us that can be investigated empirically and squashed by pointing out that women are not inferior to men, traditional racial categories are biological invalid and debunking various myths about homosexuality. It also helped that skeptics where disproportionately social libertarians and the opposition where often conservative creationists.

From this success story, it may be very easy to slide into advocating political policy. In effect, to become political advocates. This entails crossing the chasm from scientific skepticism to politics. In practice, this means party politics. With it, comes the temptation of defending the party line until the last drop of intellectual integrity has been shed. Clearly, party politicians never ask their opponents what it would take for them to change their minds. When was the last time you saw a major politician say something like “Well, that is a very impressive argument. I will have to read some studies and if that argument holds up I will leave my party and start supporting yours”? It does not happen. Why? That is because in politics, you focus more on being right (or more precisely, getting other people to believe that you are right), rather than knowing what is right.

While there have been fascinating attempts to provide a rational basis for secular morality (e. g. Carrier and Harris) and even bringing randomized controlled trials into politics (e. g. Goldacre), a lot remain to be done. Will crossing the chasm be the next step in the social evolution of scientific skepticism or will it be an invitation to dogmatism? There are obviously more possibilities than these extremes and they are not necessarily mutually exclusive. Still, it is worth making sure that whatever program of positive intellectual and social values is left standing after the transition will stand firmly within the methods of scientific skepticism and not be bogged down or corrupted by political ideology or party politics. It is of course not necessarily the case that the social values embodied would themselves be erroneous. They would probably be very reasonable. The problem may be that the suggestions for solutions recommended by such a new movement might stem from ideology and therefore have a moderate probability of colliding with solutions proposed by empirical research. Is it a risk worth taking? Perhaps.

Emil Karlsson

Debunker of pseudoscience.

3 thoughts on “Crossing the Chasm

  • August 22, 2012 at 16:47

    I think dogmatism is the biggest dividing factor between science/skepticism and politics. Most people in public office toe the party/personal line and dislike admitting mistakes were made. Often it’s seen as a sign of weakness to the point where “flip flop” is an actual political insult. Yet science demands that you sacrifice such dogma and do change your mind as the evidence also changes.

    I think that’s also a severe limiting factor on apply science to politics. Whilst there are many areas of knowledge which are unlikely to change, there are also some which may. How can we get people to commit to, for example, a decade long social program which may have the rug pulled out from under its feet after a couple of years? Whilst it might be easy to convince people of the more “settled” issues does this mean we cannot take action on other aspects of life?

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