The Robustness of Scientific Skepticism

skepticism and testable claims

Recently, scientific skepticism has come under attack. PZ Myers has announced that he does not want to be a part of the skeptical community any longer. His decision stems from a long-standing disagreement with Jamy Ian Swiss about the proper mission of skepticism. While I do not think that his characterization of scientific skepticism is accurate and that his action is a result of anger rather than reason, I will entertain his arguments, point-by-point.

Testable claims and sacred cows

[…] it is clear that “scientific skepticism” is simply a crippled, buggered version of science with special exemptions to set certain subjects outside the bounds of its purview. […] But what else can you call this logic? Skepticism has no sacred cows! Except that skepticism only addresses “testable claims”. By the way, the existence of gods is not a testable claim. That’s a pretty explicit loophole by definition.

Skepticism has no sacred cows in the sense that no particular set of beliefs that make testable claims is shielded from skeptical scrutiny. Theistic and religious beliefs often do make testable claims, such as the efficacy of prayer, the origin of biological diversity, the nature of the human brain and so on. These are absolutely acceptable targets for scientific skepticism.

What about non-testable claims? Positions that do not make any testable claims cannot be handled exactly the same as those that do make testable claims. However, there are different skeptical approaches to non-testable claims and it is here that skepticism becomes very robust. These include:

1. A world were a non-testable position is true does not differ from a world where such a position is false. In other words, non-testable claims about nature and the universe (“the world out there”) is irrelevant. Thus, a skeptical can legitimately ask the question: “why should anyone care?”

2. A skeptic can then ask what exactly it means for something to be true about nature and the universe if it makes no testable predictions.

3. It is also still appropriate to highlight the issue of non-testability, and ask how the person can know that the position is true if no evidence exists and the idea is not even testable to begin with.

So while testable claims can be subjected to the entire arsenal of scientific skepticism, non-testable claims can still be subjected to skeptical objections regarding relevance, truth and epistemology. Thus, even non-testable claims lie within the purview of skepticism.

Scientific skepticism does not abuse the term “scientific”

I was also annoyed by the skeptic movement’s appropriation of the term “scientific” all over the place…except that it’s a “science” that doesn’t make use of accumulated prior knowledge, that abandons the concept of the null hypothesis, and that so narrowly defines what it will accept as evidence that it actively excludes huge domains of knowledge. It’s toothless science that fetishizes “consumer protection” over understanding.

Why is it appropriate to call skepticism “scientific”? The reason is that skepticism uses scientific data and methods to investigate pseudoscientific claims. This approach absolutely make use of accumulated prior knowledge (think science-based medicine). As far as null hypothesis goes, I have discussed at length how PZ Myers subscribe to a flawed statistical paradigm known as null hypothesis significance testing (NHST) in my post PZ Myers is not an Oblate Spheroid (p < 0.05). Instead of focusing on null hypotheses, we should focus on convergence of evidence, effect sizes and precision estimates. This approach is not something bad, quite the contrary. There is also nothing wrong with “consumer protection”. In the context of scientific skepticism, consumer protection is a sort of intellectual self-defense, which is entirely compatible with understanding.

Personal issues should not eclipse reality

It was an incredibly repellent talk that was not improved in the past year, but only made uglier and more grotesque. He ignored all of my previous criticisms, answering them only by yelling louder. I coulda gagged at the end when he piously announced we all ought to be fighting together for the cause of reason…after an hour of caricaturing atheists as ignorant and smug posturing of “scientific skepticism” as the great good virtue.

Myers shows that his real beef is with an individual, namely Jamy Ian Swiss. Let us assume that Swiss ignores Myers’ criticism, that Swiss yells loudly and that Swiss makes flawed caricatures of atheists. So what? What on earth does it have to do with scientific skepticism?

I wish that people would stop exaggerating the impact of disagreements (although disagreements are vital and has to be voiced) and discontinue active attempts to fragment the skeptical community. Instead, focus on building a big, diverse tent of different kinds of people with different positions and beliefs that may or may not agree on every issue and focus efforts on the real problem: pseudoscience and crank beliefs.

This does not mean that we should allow people who threaten and harass others to be part of the skeptical community. By all means, kick them to the curb. Just stop fragmenting for the sake of petty, personal conflicts. It may do more harm than good.

Categories: Skepticism

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1 reply

  1. Fragmentation is bad for science while healthy disagreements are part of science and make it advance.

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