Monday, December 24, 2007

Skepticism and informed consensus

A blog entry from Aardvarchaeology, with some timely thoughts on skepticism: A discussion in the comments section of the recent Skeptics' Circle reminded me of something I learned only after years in the skeptical movement.

A real skeptic always sides with scientific consensus.

This may sound really unsatisfying and self-contradictory at first. Isn't skepticism about critical thinking? About being open to any idea (or none) as long as it survives rational deliberation? Doesn't this consensus thing mean that the whole movement is actually just kowtowing to white-coated authority? Well, yes and no.

To begin with, let's remember that there are many people who are strongly skeptical of certain ideas, but who are not counted as part of the skeptical movement. Take Holocaust skeptics, global warming skeptics and evolution skeptics. In the skeptical community, we call them denialists. Why? Because their views go against scientific consensus.

Science presupposes that all participants have a skeptical frame of mind and arrive at conclusions through rational deliberation. If a large group of knowledgeable people working in this way arrive at a consensus opinion, then there is really no good reason for anybody with less knowledge of the subject to question it. Informed consensus is how scientific truth is established. It's always provisional and open to reevaluation, but as long as there's informed consensus, then that's our best knowledge. Humanity's best knowledge.

I've never studied the historical or archaeological record of the Holocaust. I know nothing about climatology. I have only high-school biology training. Yet I trust that thousands of hard-working scholars in these fields are not conspiring to trick me when they tell me that they have arrived at consensus. I'm a full-time research scholar myself, and I think you're more likely to get reasonable information about Scandinavian prehistory from me than from, say, a professional homeopath dabbling in archaeoastronomy.

On many issues, of course, there is no scientific consensus. Here, skeptics have every reason to exercise critical thinking and arrive at an opinion of their own. Or to reserve judgement. Also, skeptics have an important mission to fill in publicly debunking claims and publications that are so far out that nobody working professionally in that scientific field pays them any attention.

So, to outskeptic a skeptic, you don't take a panskeptical position and disbelieve everything you hear. The best skeptics are the most well-read, well-informed ones, who follow science and scholarship. By reading science blogs, for instance.

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