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The Trouble with Skeptics

Glenn Campbell

original source |  fair use notice

Summary: Let us examine the world of the skeptic. This is a person who has dedicated himself to exposing the flawed belief systems of others. I myself am a recovering skeptic, so I understand the philosophy.

Let us examine the world of the skeptic. This is a person who has dedicated himself to exposing the flawed belief systems of others. I myself am a recovering skeptic, so I understand the philosophy: Humans would be capable of great things if only they were freed of their ridiculous religions, silly paranormal beliefs, and self-destructive fallacies. The skeptic takes it upon himself to debunk UFOs, alternative medicine, conspiracy theories, popular entertainment, national politics and television evangelists. Most of his debunking takes place in front of the television, where his derisive comments are heard (and bravely tolerated) only by the people in the room, but if he has more time and initiative, he will write articles for The Skeptical Enquirer describing his investigation of the Face on Mars and how it is, in fact, little more than a random formation of rocks construed by idiots to be some sort of alien temple.

The skeptic usually has a scientific background, and science is his standard for how one should live ones life. To come to a decision in any circumstance, you make observations, assemble theories, test those theories by a logically sound methodology, and draw conclusions only when the data is statistically undeniable. The scientific method is obstructed, says the skeptic, when people choose to believe things without sound evidence. When most of the population obeys their emotions instead their intellect, science has little chance of repairing the problems of the world.

The skeptic wants to improve humanity in a two-step process: First, he will clear out all the false beliefs and self-destructive impulses currently afflicting mankind, and then science will step in to provide rational solutions to the world's problems. In reality, the skeptic never gets beyond the first step, the cutting down phase. Humanity's irrational belief systems are so massive, so pervasive and so intimately tied to the human psyche that they are largely immune to any amount of rational attack. You can write all the articles you want about the Face on Mars and never dissuade the hard-core believer. Although the believer cites evidence -- or something resembling evidence -- to justify his belief to others, the evidence itself is not the real reason for his beliefs. He believes because he needs to, because it serves some purpose in his personality. Perhaps, believing in aliens or astrology or a presidential candidate gives him a sense of control and purpose that he would not have otherwise.

The skeptic believes that by debunking an irrational belief or social hypocrisy, he will provide an opportunity for clarity and enlightenment. He thinks that if his arguments are sound, the believer will read his article and say, "You know, you are right. Thank you for helping me see the flaws in my reasoning. I will try to be more rational and scientific from now on." In reality, when you expose the flawed belief systems of others, two things will probably occur: First, the believer is going to start hating you. He will withdraw from you and look for flaws in your own behavior that he can use to dismiss you. In effect, you have lost a friend and lost the ability to have any influence over him in the future. The second thing that will probably happen, if you have been truly effective in trashing someone's belief system, is that they will simply change beliefs. Whatever psychological needs were served by one system can probably also be fulfilled by another. Catholics, when disillusioned with their church, can become Mormons. The new religion isn't necessarily better or worse than the first one, just more protected from criticism.

The skeptics assume that if you peel away the irrational beliefs of humanity, you will left with a solid and rational core. In truth, irrational beliefs are an intimate part of human identity. It is like peeling away the layers of an onion and having nothing left: For better or worse, the layers are the onion. A person's beliefs, wherever they may come from, provide structure and morality. For example, you may or may not believe that Jesus was the son of God, but you cannot say that Christianity is worthless. It provides a value system (like the Ten Commandments and the Golden Rule) and a theory of enforcement (Heaven and Hell) that allow some people to live in harmony. If you effectively debunk that belief system, it not clear that the ex-Christians would become better people. They could simple say, "There is no God watching me now, so I can do whatever I want."

The skeptic inevitably becomes bogged down in Phase One -- alienating a lot of people, perhaps demolishing a few limited fallacies but not making much overall progress in preparing the way for science. He doesn't give much thought to what happens next. What, exactly, is science supposed to do once it gains control of the world? Has science ever helped humanity in the long run? Think of modern medicine: Isn't it a good thing that science has vanquished many diseases and extended the human lifespan? The answer isn't clear. The dark side of medicine is overpopulation, perhaps the single most devastating problem to face mankind. Before effective medicine, the world population was stable. People lived in tribes, making human sacrifices and worshiping their own irrational gods, but if you measure happiness by social stability and the unresolvable stress on the average individual, it is not clear that the world is a better place today.

The trouble with science is that it can focus on only one problem at a time, and by solving that problem in isolation it tends to create others. Science is not holistic. It cannot analyse factors that lie outside the experiment or beyond the current theory. Science can make better laundry detergent and build bigger bombs, but it cannot determine the value of a human life or set priorities for the use of human resources. Science gave us Hitler's eugenics experiments -- seemingly rational attempts to improve the human genome that are totally abhorrent to us now. Other scientific theories of a certain era would predict that we can live in Walden Two, raised in antiseptic communes according to the rules of operant conditioning. Such utopian schemes have never worked, because humans are much more complex than any one theory can predict.

Scientists, by necessity, live in a one-dimensional world that is determined by their specialty. They can provide useful tools to society but cannot always be relied upon to make balanced social decisions. People driven by irrational beliefs also cannot be relied upon to make balanced decisions, but you probably won't make these people more competent by shooting down their beliefs. One should not tear down someone's home unless you are prepared to replace it with another. Skepticism, as a philosophy, only destroys beliefs; it does not build new ones.

Instead of sitting in front of his TV making acerbic remarks, the skeptic could go out and try to accomplish something. Rather than shooting down falsehoods and alienating people, he could be working with others toward some common goal, like improving the conditions in his neighborhood or controlling the world population. If you are going to work with people in any capacity, then you have to quietly accept their flaws. When you hear them express some emotionally-based belief that does not match your science, you ought to hold your tongue, unless the topic is directly related to the task at hand. Even then, you have to be pragmatic: You can't expect to rearrange another person's belief system, only modify the behavior that is getting in the way of your mutual goals.

It is much easier to shoot things down than to build things up, and most hardcore skeptics will never make the transition from one to the other. The skeptic sees himself as totally rational, which of course is an irrational fallacy like all the others. There is a hidden personal reason why he chooses to spend his time and psychic energy attacking the beliefs of others. Perhaps, like a conspiracy theorist, he feels insignificant and is trying to gain mastery over the world by exposing its hidden flaws. Whatever the motivation, a world run by skeptics would be a sad one indeed. Once the world's religions and ideologies were neutralized, leaving the people without direction, the skeptics would turn on each other, exposing each other's weaknesses and never finding grounds for getting along. Unfortunately, tolerant diplomacy is not part of the skeptic's philosophy.

Copyright © 2002, Glenn Campbell, PO Box 30303, Las Vegas, NV 89103

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Skeptics and Their Arguments