Hemning Sternberg (moonshadow) wrote,
Hemning Sternberg

Skeptical about skepticism

This post was inspired by a great post a friend recently wrote about privilege.

Last night mrpet and I went to see a talk about the Panic Broadcast of 1939, in which a radio dramatization of War of the Worlds caused some people to believe that the US was being invaded by aliens. It was a great talk. I had not really looked at the organizing group, which was Boston Skeptics. mrpet and I were the stealth believers in the audience.

So, I have kind of a problem with skepticism. The guy we met last night explaining their movement said that it was "promoting scientific inquiry," and I am all for that. I think the scientific method rocks. But... a lot of times, when I have heard this viewpoint expressed in the past, it turns out to mean "we are debunking your superstitious nonsense with the cold, clear light of reason." And in turn, that winds up meaning "all that is real is what we can prove in a laboratory. If you can't prove your beliefs in a laboratory we will mock them."

Yes, there are some frauds in this world - people who are making claims they do not believe. They deserve to be exposed. There are also a huge number of flakes in this world - people who sincerely believe things that are debatable or improbable - whether they should be protected is something I'm less convinced about. But I do have some issues with this mindset, and here they are.

1) There is a difference between scientific inquiry and the scientific establishment. For scientific inquiry to work, you have to go into it with an open mind. And then there's the whole issue of what studies get funded. There's so much that we assume and take for granted. Most of the great scientific thinkers have been laughed at for testing theories that the majority found to be patently ridiculous. If science is really so objective, why is it so resistant to any new idea?

2) Somehow, skeptical folks always seem focused on disproving things like ghosts. Why are they never skeptical about things that those who believe in science take for granted? For example, I would love to see skeptics tackle the question of, "Why are you safer giving birth at home than in a hospital if you have a normal pregnancy in the US?" or "Why do doctors still use forms of care whose efficacy has been disproved by science?" or "Why do we teach kids things in school that we know now are not scientifically true?"

3) If something is not proven in a laboratory, that doesn't mean it's impossible. It means it wasn't proved in a laboratory. We may not yet have the tools to be able to understand or even measure certain effects.

4) A lot of folks who profess skepticism seem to lack a sense of wonder or a belief that we don't have all the answers yet. I mean, look at our scientific worldview of a hundred years ago. Is it so implausible to think that our worldview might be completely different again in another hundred years? Heck, it was very recently that some of the top minds in physics thought there was nothing much left to discover, just t-crossing and i-dotting, and that was before Einstein revolutionized the field.

5) One of the things that I love about science is that good science is not monolithic. We have data and we have theories and then we have interpretation. Saying x, y, or z is not rational, well, according to who? I am tired of hearing people say things like, "SCIENCE says you are wrong!" As though science is your dad that is going to come out and show little me the error of my ways and I will cower and agree. Science says a lot of different things. Cite me some sources.

6) Developed Western bias much? The medicinal and worldview traditions of thousands of years must be wrong, because now we know The Truth and can shed some white on the people? Oh those poor superstitious natives - We Must Save Them!

7) My biggest issue with this is that there seems to be no "live and let live" in the community. I am not an evangelist. I don't believe that my way is the Right Way or that everyone should be a pagan or that reiki will fix your backache if you let it or if you just TRIED polyamory you'd love it. I want to live in a world where everyone believes that different ways are valid and your way isn't wrong just because it's not mine - even if our beliefs have nothing else in common. The vocal skeptics I've known don't seem to share this belief. There's no exception for, "but it works for me." It seems to go straight to "either you're a fraud or you're deluded."

Even so, I don't feel I am educated enough to know whether my impressions are true. Ironic, no? It's very possible that most of the vocal skeptics I've known have been jerks and that could be reflected in what I describe above. Maybe the nicer skeptics I know are just low-key about their beliefs. But I suspect it's going to be difficult to find a book to read to find out more about this that doesn't make me feel attacked for mine.
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