When in Doubt: On the Nature of Skepticism

Skepticism is not a new concept. In philosophy it’s been around since ancient Pyrrhonism and has undergone a fairly wide variety of interpretations in the long historical record since that point. And of course, skepticism as an epistemological concept is quite different from the kind of skepticism that most of us would refer to in everyday life. Whereas the latter would roughly describe anyone who walks around doubting stuff, the former is usually a bit more methodical. And it is precisely this aspect of philosophical skepticism – its methodical, procedural nature – that may be worth considering in our common application of the term.

What we can learn from this procedural nature of skepticism? Simply put: that in applying philosophical skepticism, one is engaging in a process of investigation. It is a quest for not only truth, but also justification(s) for truth.

I suppose a lot of my interest in writing on this stems from a personal observation/objection that many people in today’s world are self-described ‘skeptics’ about – well, seemingly everything. This is not necessarily a bad thing, of course; but often it’s not so much doubt that they seem to employ as much as pure intractability. Take so-called climate skeptics, for instance: even when confronted with overwhelming scientific evidence and a near-unanimous consensus from the world’s leading experts, their position remains stubbornly in the camp of denial. While they refuse to acknowledge the scientific merits of studies and research in peer-reviewed journals that demonstrate the realities of anthropogenic climate change, they will read, share and preach about any and all questionable studies (or often blog posts) that support their denialist claims. It is mind boggling.

To be certain, there are plenty of issues in today’s political arena where there is ample room for multiple positions, conflicting views, and healthy debate. But all too often, these become muddled amidst extremist claims with purportedly “evidence-based” support that is not remotely evidence based. And the more frequently this occurs, the harder it becomes for the general public to decipher fact from fiction.

Politics is not the only sphere in which the modern-day skeptics make their mark. Just look at some of the current “all-natural” parenting trends, where a seemingly reasonable notion – eliminating children’s exposure to toxic products – becomes thwarted into all kinds of fanatical offshoots. Adopting the skeptic’s label becomes a symbol of empowerment and, occasionally, anti-establishmentism. This is most evident in the anti-vaccine community, where strident opposition to vaccines due to their (supposed) toxicity is couched in the language of skepticism and mistrust of authority. It is even reminiscent of conspiracy theories. The majority findings of scientists and medical experts are dismissed in favor of one or two outlier opinions – nearly always with dubious credentials, associations, or methodologies. But in adopting a skeptic’s stance, one automatically becomes a Voice of Dissent. It is enticing, perhaps – even enthralling – to imagine oneself into the role of a whistleblower. But unfortunately, for anti-vaxxers and the community at large, this particular brand of skepticism is both misplaced and, ultimately, quite dangerous.

Skepticism is not extremist. It is not, in itself, an absolute refutation of popular (or really any) opinion. It is, rather, a process – a quest for truth that strives above all for objectivity. I suppose I’d like to see more self-described skeptics in today’s society recognize that their positions are based not out of true skepticism, but defiance. And for them to realize that this kind of defiance – unlike skepticism – is not particularly conducive to the discovery of truth.

We should all be skeptics. But let’s not forget what that means.