Ethical Skepticism – Part 2 – The Riddle of Skepticism
By focusing on skepticism as a method, outside of science, of disposing of people, ideas and observations, one corrupts the discipline into nothing more than that of a practice of methodical cynicism. Under this errant version of skepticism large groups of smart people can end up arriving at an ignorance based conclusion very easily. Real skepticism, as exhibited inside Ethical Skepticism, combines elements of traditional skepticism, under the principle of plurality, with the goals of value and clarity.
Why Sagan and Shermer are Wrong: False Dilemma Skepticism
Below we retract Social Skepticism back to its core basis of Descartes’ Cartesian Doubt and outline how Ethical Skepticism, in contrast, draws its tenets from the most value laden elements of the three classic (and one modern) approaches to the knowledge development process. The contrast resides in no better form than when framed against much of the false wisdom put forth by celebrity SSkeptics over the years. For example, in the oft touted words of Carl Sagan:
“What is Skepticism? It’s nothing very esoteric. We encounter it every day. When we buy a used car.”
Point 6 of the Baloney Detection Kit: Where does the preponderance of evidence point? – Carl Sagan¹
As much as I loved Cosmos and read many of his books which inspired me in my youth towards a science and engineering career, unfortunately Carl Sagan was wrong (see link) here, as this is not skepticism. This is simply a guide to methodical cynicism (a method of being a cynic, while at the same time convincing yourself you are not a cynic). Carl has purposely conflated human tactical presumption and the exercise of dogma/stereotype with the ethical mindset which facilitates the process of knowledge development. True Skepticism alerts to the condition of not holding sufficient evidence, or in the asking of the wrong question. A used car salesman (or person) might burn you if you do not collect your data, and you do not observe before pretending to ask the right question. In other words, fail to be skeptical of self. They do not burn you simply because of what job they hold, who they are or that you are involved with them in the sale of a used car. If we go out and develop a research study which proves that used car salesmen are hired based upon being or trained to be more corrupt than the general population handling large money negotiations, then we will have developed that conclusion by the disciplines and method of science, not ‘skepticism’ of car salesmen acting in lieu of science. We will then need to change the law. The latter presumption is simply human prejudice masquerading as science, so we do not have to undertake the gumption, epoché and curiosity requisite in actually studying the issue of buying a used car in the first pace. This process alluded to by Sagan simply serves to cultivate ignorance. It is not skepticism in the least. Where we failed in skepticism in this process is the first rule of ethical skepticism: being skeptical of our selves and that we have the information and observation basis to ask the right question.
Healthcare will also burn us all and destroy our economy soon through overdriven costs, fake industry exclusivity and privilege of expertise/access to treatments, if we do not question those who craft and pay to have its policy legislated. But do we question Science Based Medicine, which promotes this present healthcare film-flam? No. Because, in broach of skepticism, we have declared them in advance to be the ‘good guy.’ They have sought to step between the public and block our access to government – remove rights and afford power to withhold information, to Crony institutions. This is not skepticism in the least. Their claims to be ‘evidence based’ fall hollow on philosophically trained ears (see Kilkenny’s Law). Skepticism is about opposing mechanisms and institutions who seek power and illegal trust advantage by the restriction of information and rights. Both the pigeon-holing of the used car salesperson and the blessing of Science Based Medicine pretenses results from what is called in ethical skepticism: cultivated ignorance.
This Sagan/Shermer approach of identifying the good guys and bad guys and good subjects and bad subjects and good observations and bad observations in advance is simply an exercise in human tactical presumption and prejudice. It is evidenced in today’s skeptically crafted and inappropriate use of the term pseudoscience. In other words Methodical Cynicism. So on everything else in our lives besides used cars, we can relax and not question? This example foisted by Sagan bears nothing whatsoever in common with skepticism. It is the pretense, or M’ in the Novick sense.
Carl habitually conveyed false depictions of what indeed is skepticism; conflating it in the quote below with cynicism and completely missing the fact that skepticism involves precisely an active, researching and open mind. Pretending that possessing an open mind is somehow the opposite of skepticism, and involves giving all ideas ‘equal validity.’ In his mad rush to pummel this strawman of what a researching open mind is, he attempts to foist below – that the purpose of skepticism is therefore the alternative: to force most-likely conclusions in lieu of scientific research (see Garbage Skepticism).
This false dilemma (bifurcation fallacy with a call to choose side) about what skepticism entails has resulted in a mis-education of the public as to the definition and ethic of skepticism – one which affords the cynic a comfortable hiding place inside of science. We continue with Carl Sagan’s quote:
“If you are only skeptical, then no new ideas make it through to you. You never learn anything new. You become a crotchety old person convinced that nonsense is ruling the world. But every now and then, a new idea turns out to be on the mark, valid and wonderful. If you are too much in the habit of being skeptical about everything, you are going to miss or resent it, and you will be standing in the way of understanding and progress.
But if you are open to the point of gullibility and have not an ounce of skeptical sense in you, then you cannot distinguish the useful as from the worthless ones. If all ideas have equal validity then you are lost, because then, it seems to me, no ideas have any validity at all.
Some ideas are better than others. The machinery for distinguishing them is an essential tool in dealing with the world. And it is precisely the mix of these two modes of thought that is central to the success of science.”
Skepticism: 50% Gumption, 49% Curiosity, 1% Provisional Assumption
Nor does true skepticism simply combine “empirical rigor and imaginative whimsy” as Michael Shermer puts it. One will notice that this is the same exact bifurcation fallacy as Sagan cited; Shermer having simply re-worded it so that he could take credit for the thought at a later date. On the personal level, whimsy is a boast of self-serving entertainment, while empirical rigor is often a self delusion as to intellectual prowess and ability to target shoot. A delusion wherein once we play in the fantasy role that we alone represent science, thereafter every thought we possess and every belief we hold is ’empirically based.’ This especially when both whimsy and rigor are applied as an excuse for lazy provisional skepticism, in lieu of science. Both form the mental chewing gum we employ to deceive ourselves into thinking we are “open minded” and have done our job – and can now make a comfy conclusion from which to demonstrate to those we wish to impress, our skill in fealty to truth.
This is a game of intellectual idea skeet shooting, attended by our self-appreciation as science, applauding to the powdered explosion of every whimsical skeet of busted bunk. It habituates one into committing an Existential and Transactional Occam’s Razor Fallacy when faced with any challenging argument. It is trained methodical cynicism.
Moreover, this arrogant mentality is all centered on the idea that since we are a skeptic, we are now science too, and therefore are no longer in need of personal gumption and curiosity. We can assume sufficient equipage is held to be able to make a scientific determination, in lieu of science. Gumption is the drive to research and seek; curiosity a dissatisfaction with pat answers coupled with the mental discipline of withholding conclusion (epoché) until we are able to undertake the monumental task to fully observe. “Empirical rigor and imaginative whimsy” when applied at a personal level as ‘skepticism,’ all occur in a closed domain. Armchair, academic, bookshelf, aged-tenure pretend science. In a closed domain the only next step left is to throw up one’s hands and guess on the most likely conclusion based solely on what one knows right now (see Novella’s ‘provisional knowledge’ in Garbage Skepticism). None of this faldara is science. This is the essence of fake skepticism.
“Stupidity consists in wanting to reach conclusions. We are a thread, and we want to know the whole cloth.”
~ Gustave Flaubert (Madame Bovary author and French Literary Realist, circa 1850-1880)
In contrast to Michael Shermer’s teachings, true skepticism challenges the notion that we have completed the knowledge development process and have vetted thoroughly what we regard as being assumed to be ’empirical.’ Nor is science constrained to only the academic sciences, as Mr. Shermer contends in his editorial in the June 2015 Scientific American. This false equivocation of the word ‘science’ to mean only the academic sciences, affords skepticism therefore tactic permission to be applied ‘outside science’ and therefore be employed in any fashion deemed useful to one who has declared themselves to be a skeptic (since they cannot, quod erat demonstrandum, be an actual scientist). Ethical Skepticism eschews all of Shermer’s ideas that 1) we must immediately tender a disposition or disposal of an idea, 2) that the actual and correct empirical knowledge base has been fairly represented by Social Skepticism, 3) that anything other than the conforming explanation is ‘whimsy’ and 4) that anyone can act as an authority on anything provided they apply (outside of science and method) skepticism, empiricism and reason. These are all beliefs of a fake skeptic.
Both Sagan and Shermer imply that skepticism is the process of applying personal brilliance and current understanding in lieu of scientific method to arrive at most likely conclusions. This is the process of one acting in lieu of science.
Protecting the integrity of the methods of science is not the same thing as tendering conclusions in lieu of science. This is the litmus test of Ethical Skepticism.
These principles are embodied inside The Riddle of Skepticism:
Ethical Skepticism in contrast detects pretense or premature empirical rigor, and dismisses the idea that humans naturally know how and when to ask the right question, and what data to base that question upon. Michael Shermer will imply that science has proved his religion Nihilism true, and then through a process of inverse negation demonstrate that your subject, your observation and indeed you, are therefore irrelevant. True skepticism examines (even our own) furtive claims to knowledge first, before pretending to examine seemingly contradictory observations, data, intelligence, sponsors or ideas. And then, it refuses to immediately dismiss those elements (and yes, even sometimes their ‘claims’) until we have better knowledge. Ethical Skepticism is Boolean idempotent, as it does not seek to filter or alter for its own goals, the underlying data it surveys; rather, it catalogs them all. Michael spins the game that observations, data, ideas and people must be evaluated and disposed of immediately upon encounter, so that later arguments will have a predisposed favorable playing field. Moreover in fashion as if the stage role Pollyanna skeptic were an erstwhile version of Popeye in a fight; all his enemies lining up to do combat with him and be defeated, one at a time. This is the Transactional Occam’s Razor Fallacy error, which along with the Fictus Scientia Fallacy are two of the central sleight-of-hand techniques employed by false skeptics.
This fundamental mis-definition resides at the heart of the conflict between those who squelch science in the name of their own religion, and those who conduct actual research. Skepticism is NOT the “evaluation of claims based on personal experience;” rather, it is the mindset which allows that experience to be accrued in the first place. In science, and I know this is a shocker, science evaluates claims, not our pre-prejudices. And the only way science can accrue the tackle necessary in conducting this evaluation, is through Ethical Skepticism. Not prejudicial doubt and data filtering, as that constitutes a process which will only result in finding what one is looking for. One is not born magically all knowing, nor does an academic youth correct this weakness – and if one presumes such – much deleterious result will come from such a boast. If you presume all used car salesmen to be fraudsters, you will make just as many mistakes as those who presume them all to be honest. It is your ability to understand the information sets and questions necessary in grasping the nature of used car sales which exhibits skepticism on your part. Not your prejudice about people.
This boast, this a priori prejudice of ‘what is’ and ‘what is not’ indeed stands as the most extraordinary claim in the fake skeptic’s quiver of boasts. The claim to absolute knowledge along with the divorce of one’s mind from the need to accrue any more. As you can see in the graphic to the right, a MiHoDeAL claim to knowledge is an example of our error in making grandiose boasts about what we think we know. Our pre-adopted prejudices are the weak link in our skeptical minds, the practice which allows us to fall prey to religious thinking. In contrast, real Skepticism in reality, is a method of preparing the mind and data sets to do actual science – not to conclude it in one felled swoop of personal brilliance.
The Essential Code of Ethical Skepticism: Epoché vanguards Gnosis
Ethical Skepticism is a blend of Empirical and Philosophical Skepticism, the tenets of both of which are vetted through Ockham’s Razor and the scientific method, as to their efficacy in delivering value and clarity inside man’s knowledge development process. It rejects today’s versions of Cartesian Doubt as a racket of a priori simplistic predictive based knowledge, self delusion and methodical cynicism. Instead, Ethical Skepticism dictates a mute disposition on any topic which science has not studied, there is simply not enough data on or the Ethical Skeptic himself has not studied. This is called the state of Epoché. It is the vanguard which links both the deontological and consequentialist facets of traditional ethics. Ethical Skepticism petitions for Ockham’s Razor plurality in research when sponsorship has shown adequate necessity, and opposes all efforts to squelch such research. The context of ethics employed here is deontological in as far as the adherence to standards of protocol, such as the real scientific method, are regarded as the standards suitable to direct our actions. Yet, still consequentialist from the perspective that the outcomes of value and clarity manifest as the signature handiwork of those who practice such ethics.
The Deontological Fulcrum of Ethical Skepticism: Ockham’s Razor and The Principle of Plurality
The inputs into the Ethical Skepticism process involve three key steps necessary in introducing Ockham’s Razor plurality. Three key steps which are blocked, ignored and obscured by modern efforts to enforce ignorance. Plurality is both the condition where one justifiable avenue of research is no longer warranted under the current conditions of intelligence inside a discipline; and as well, the condition where no single faceted explanation is sufficient to encompass the explanatory basis of a set of observations. These conditions are termed ‘vertical’ and ‘horizontal’ plurality (or that which has departed for necessity from the singular or simple). These principles are outlined in the graphic to the right:
Observation – the first step in the scientific method is not “Ask a Question,” it is Observation. Observation is one of the central character traits and habits of an Ethical Skeptic. It is fed by an incessant curiosity and dissatisfaction with pat answers.
Intelligence – Intelligence is not personal acumen, but rather the assimilation, retention, cladistics and processing of observations such that they are transformed into useful value. Nothing is thrown away through Knowledge Filtering. Every observation offers value of some kind. In military intelligence, lies are just as important as are truths, each tells us something more and more as we begin to construct an analytical framework.
Necessity – the point at which Observation and Intelligence – or even a stand alone event, developed or observed by sponsors (and hopefully science, but sponsors when science has been misled by Social Skeptics), have provided sufficient predictive or falsifying evidence which mandates that a sole explanatory approach to a problem is no longer warranted.
The principal role of Social Skepticism is to thwart the Observation – Intelligence – Necessity process at all costs. In this fashion, any prejudicial question maybe be asked for testing – thereby emasculating the effectiveness of the scientific method. The true application of skepticism involves the principle of Parsimony as follows:
Parsimony – the resistance to expand explanatory plurality or descriptive complexity beyond what is absolutely necessary, combined with the wisdom to know when to do so
When parsimony argues for ‘simplicity’ it is referencing the term in contrast to complicated-ness, not the principle of complexity. We must expect complexity in our epistemology and not fear it. Use of the equivocal term ‘simple’ to oppose complexity as well is a method of deception, which constrains incrementalism to only develop along pathways of expectation. This is pseudoscience.
The Valid Consequentialist Outcomes of Ethical Skepticism: Value and Clarity
The conclusion of these three steps, then introduces Ockham’s Razor plurality: The existence of more than one explanatory avenue of research. In absence of these three steps, the Ethical Skeptic contends that science cannot “Ask a Question.” Therefore the outcomes of Ethical Skepticism are not ‘conclusions and claims’ as the dilettante believe. The outcomes of Ethical Skepticism, are:
Value – providing
- knowledge increase or accretion
- easing suffering
- developing a business which serves, produces and/or employs
- falsifies an oppressive belief
- falsifies an oppressive movement
- improves our ecosystem and sustainability
- enables a more successful governance
- supports ethical military capability
- makes money through a provision of equal value
Clarity – exhibited by
- ability to describe an opponent’s position without mocking
- integrity and mental capacity to hold Epoché on issues of plurality
- ability to hold observations without knowledge filtering
- ability to cogently outline a problem
- ability to bring the right data and argument to bear
- the over-riding desire to apply inquiry over enforcing established answers
- the ability to outline the scientific method in straightforward and accurate fashion
- the ability to inspire through presentation, other than simply those in your club
You will notice that – in Ethical Skepticism – nowhere is the burden placed on the adherent to ‘evaluate claims’ or speak in lieu of science nor enforce correct answers or simplest explanations. These activities betray a mind which is ill prepared to handle the questions science is meant to address. Skepticism is a means of preparing the mind and data sets to perform science. That is it.
It is incumbent upon us to promote genuine skeptical thought and decry pseudo-skepticism, imperious institutional doctrines and the cultivation of ignorance.
¹ The Burden of Skepticism, Carl Sagan, Skeptical Inquirer, vol. 12, Fall 1987; “The Fine Art of Baloney Detection.”