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Posted by on Feb 2, 2013 in Philosophy, Science, Skepticism | 20 comments

Michael Shermer on skepticism

Michael Shermer – someone I have a lot of time and respect for – has an interesting piece about the nature of skepticism over here. He basically equates skepticism with science, and perhaps he’s right.

This is your chance to start hashing out the issue. I’m not sure that I agree with hi, or that I actually think that skepticism is readily definable. My own grounding is in philosophy (though I do have some pretty solid literacy in science), and this makes me think far more broadly when I think of skepticism. For example, there is skepticism about religion, skepticism about morality (I’ve always argued, in my contributions to the blogosphere, in favour of skeptical theories about morality), and even radical epistemological skepticism, which is skeptical about almost everything.

Even the sort of scientific skepticism that we see from Shermer, and from others with similar views, seems not to be simply the same as science. A particular cluster of claims, or of classes of claims to be particularly targeted. So yes, a lot of what goes on in the formal Skeptic Movement is the scientific investigation of what are, intuitively, claims that are anomalous when considered against the general picture of reality emerging from science, e.g. paranormal or magical claims, various sorts of apparent pseudo-science, and implausible cryptozoological narratives. In that sense, Shermer is correct.

But what is the essence of skepticism? Is it really just the scientific investigation of claims that are, prima facie, implausible from the viewpoint of contemporary science. This is a perennial source of controversy, so have at it.




  • Skepticism is the art — and the science — of not jumping to conclusions.

  • I’m glad you asked this, since I’m not really clear on it myself. Surely skepticism doesn’t just mean the same as science (as Shermer claims) – to me it’s always meant approaching a claim from a position of doubt, and letting that be the basis for investigation. Science of course being the best way of investigating empirical claims.

    However I’ve also come across lots of prominent skeptics saying what Shermer is saying: skeptical inquiry = scientific inquiry. At university studying philosophy I got used to ‘scepticism’ meaning doubt regarding the external world or one’s senses.

    I now use the philosophical definition when thinking about philosophy, and use the ‘doubtful attitude’ definition more casually. I never really liked equating ‘skepticism’ with ‘science’ since intuitively they’re not synonymous. It seems to me that skeptics are one group and scientists another, albeit with considerable overlap.

  • Ronlawhouston

    I’m biased since I’m in the legal field, but to me skepticism is an evidentiary approach to life. It is a bit broader than science since science exists to make inferences from evidence. Skepticism is like the wholly unbiased judge who sits back and listens to all the evidence while science is like the expert witness who says based upon the facts my opinion is X. It is then up to the skeptical judge to evaluate the credibility of the scientific expert witness.

    Obviously in today’s capitalistic societies science is for sale. It is also subject to all the inherent biases of the humans that perform the science. Yes, Ideally it should self correct, but that can often take a long time. So, skepticism needs to be applied to science.

    In many ways I equate skepticism more with epistemology than with science.

  • Scientifically informed philosophy counts. Scientifically uniformed philosophy doesn’t count. I take it you represent the former not the latter.

  • Yes, but does philosophically uninformed science count? That has been the interesting debate of late.

  • Richard Feynmen, ostensibly discussing science, but really expressing the spirit and ethic central to skepticism as a general thing, said “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool.”

    The second aim of skepticism is that you must not let yourself be fooled by others, but the first is the more important and primary goal. You see many would-be skeptics who leap with enthusiasm on the second problem, while neglecting the first. As a result, they fail in both.

  • MosesZD

    I would say no. I would say it’s broader and that’s because skepticism is also part of police work and (theoretically, but sadly not much anymore) journalism. In neither case are we really ‘doing science.’ We may use scientific tools, but we’re just not ‘doing science’ at least in the way my wife, who is a professional scientist at a major university ‘does science.’ (That is finding out how part the world works within her narrow specialty of developmental biology.)
    Which is not to say skepticism is used in daily life, or in other professions. These are just professions in which I know from first and second hand experience require skepticism.

  • josh

    Do you have any examples in mind? Science sort of comes part and parcel with, or rather is, a philosophy IMO. (Correct philosophy at that!)

  • SmilodonsRetreat

    I agree with most everyone else. Skepticism isn’t science. Science should be skeptical. But I consider skepticism more of a life choice. Skepticism is about questioning things.

    My favorite example is from my own life. I grew up eating Blue Bell ice cream In the south, you almost everyone just eats Blue Bell. It’s like owning guns and having pickup trucks… you just do. One day, I wondered if Blue Bell was the best. I mean, I researched the heck out of TVs and other major purchases, but not my ice cream.

    That’s being skeptical. Question everything, then use science to find the answer.

  • Bill Kerwin

    To me, the whole of skepticism is captured in the statement:
    “I could be wrong.”
    (Of course, I could be wrong about that.)

  • Charles Sullivan

    After reading this piece by Shermer I don’t think he is suggesting that philosophers can’t employ skepticism when doing philosophy. He does say, at one point, that “Being a skeptic just means being rational and empirical: thinking and seeing before believing.”

    This seems fairly broad enough to include philosophy, although I might exchange the conjunction ‘and’ for ‘and/or’.

    She also seems to find the kinship (at least in part) between science and skepticism as having something to do with conclusions being provisional within both science and skepticism.

    Surely, the same can be said about philosophical conclusions being provisional (with the possible exception of logic itself). And I imagine, if asked, Shermer would consider some aspects of philosophical inquiry to qualify as varieties of skepticism.

    I just think that he is overly-focused on empiricism here, and hence the unintentional (I hope) sin of omitting philosophical inquiry.

    Although having said that, I do recall a very recent piece by Shermer where he seems confused ala Sam Harris about thinking that moral values can be determined by science. I hope he’s not going down that same path here.

  • Jason Streitfeld

    Skepticism is an attitude. Science is a process and a body of knowledge. So obviously they are not identical. Science and philisophy cannot be based only on skepticism, since they must take something as given in order to begin. But both employ skepticism in various ways. I haven’t read Shermer’s piece, but it dorsn’t seem vital.

  • Edward Gemmer

    Honestly I don’t know. I am loathe to ascribe some series of beliefs to skepticism. Extra-cynical maybe? Having a higher than average standard of proof is useful but not exactly the formation of a movement. I’m thinking the promotion of critical thinking would be the calling card of skeptics.

  • Skepticism is not the same as science. It’s more like what Massimo Pigliucci call Sci-Phi (Science + Philosophy). It’s also more like a goal (to try to be a critical thinker) that something that someone possess (like philosophy is the love of wisdom, skepticism is the love of critical thinking). It’s also a movement, which advocate some positions (naturalism and so on).

  • Bruce, science that is philosophically uninformed always counts for science. When it comes to philosophy though, only scientifically informed philosophy counts, that is, philosophy based on science.

  • Josh, I have run into this within the circles of philosophers of religion all of the time. These philosophers either denigrate science or deny it in favor of their ancient holy books. They don’t understand what an extraordinary claim is; they don’t understand why science works and faith doesn’t; they fail to understand that methodological naturalism is not the same thing as metaphysical naturalism, and far too many other things to name. Vic Reppert, and Alvin Plantinga are making the scientifically uniformed claim that we need the Christian conservative God in order to reason. Evolution explains this quite naturally. They claim to be scientifically informed but they aren’t, not by a long shot.

  • Myron

    Given Shermer’s interpretation, skepticism is the same as scientific evidentialism. But this is not the same as traditional epistemological skepticism, i.e. the denial of knowability, the attainability of (objective) certainty, or the justifiability of belief with regard to propositions (in some field of study). There are global and local skepticisms. For example, one can be a local skeptic about a-priori knowledge but a nonskeptic about a-posteriori knowledge.

  • Myron

    “Science = Skepticism” – This is an ill-formed statement, because science is a social institution rather than an ism, and an ism can only be identical with another ism or a group of other isms. Does Shermer mean to say that skepticism = scientism?

  • Myron

    That’s called fallibilism.

  • Myron

    What about skepticism about the existence of THE scientific method?