The militant sceptic

Boy, do sceptics love uncertainty. We use any crack of uncertainty as justification to disbelieve, and as there’s uncertainty about the evidence for most things, we can use even the smallest uncertainty in the evidence to disbelieve pretty much anything or anyone we like. 

It goes a long way, that kind of scepticism, and it’s easy to do. Feels good, too. It can be a matter of pride: we like to think that it shows we’ve applied an intellectually rigorous test of other people’s evidence – and their evidence fails… obviously (which by the way makes us cleverer than them).      

But what we sceptics sometimes overlook is that the sceptical knife cuts both ways. We should wield it equally both towards belief – and towards its alternatives. That is, what really puts our scepticism to the test is whether we are willing to doubt our own position just as aggressively as we doubt other people’s.

Yes, it’s possible to construct arguments to doubt the truth of anthropogenic climate change or the case for vaccination (to take a couple of examples, not quite out of the blue), because we are clever at sifting through data for oddities and uncertainties; but what doubts do we express about our own position? Come on, seriously, our own most cherished pieces of evidence… put them up there, take aim, and declare their weaknesses too. Because sceptics are not telling themselves that they – hard-nosed sceptics – think there’s no uncertainty here? Are they? That the room for doubt is all on the other side? Or that the doubts on their side are trivial? Well then, better own them.

Scepticism has to look in the mirror. Otherwise, this badge of honour begins to look more like a badge of convenience. 

That’s the real price of scepticism – a price self-styled sceptics can be tempted try to get away without paying: the obligation to challenge is self-imposed by the sceptic, on the sceptic. If we want to boast that we apply a higher standard of rigour, we had better be prepared to live up to the same scrutiny, and put ourselves through it. 

But we can go further, more’s the pity, since this can be uncomfortable. Because a leading contender for taker of the sceptical biscuit is Michel de Montaigne, he of the celebrated essays. And the lengths Montaigne went to boggle the mind.

Montaigne’s 16thcentury catch-phrase was ‘Que sais je?’… ‘What do I know?’ And he took it to the logical extreme. He doubted pretty much everything, on both sides of the argument. A standard essay format – on education, morality, whatever – would go: ‘on the one hand… on the other… but then again…’ and so on, all the way to the point of doubting the merit of his own scepticism. 

So if we write a paper that doubts someone else’s paper, how should we apply the Montagne standard of even-handedness? To quote some lines from Richard Feynman in a research context, also mentioned elsewhere on this blog:

‘It’s a kind of scientific integrity, a principle of scientific thought that corresponds to a kind of utter honesty – a kind of leaning over backwards. For example, if you’re doing an experiment, you should report everything that you think might make it invalid – not only what you think is right about it… Details that could throw doubt on your interpretation must be given, if you know them.  You must do the best you can—if you know anything at all wrong, or possibly wrong—to explain it….

Sceptical even about your own scepticism sounds like it’s going to be one of those infinite regressions into muttering in the gutter. Montaigne managed to hold it together beautifully. He is thousands of words of reflective gallic shrug resolved into… a meta-gallic shrug. I can’t recommend him enough.

Except… that in the spirit of Montaigne, I also can’t help wondering if all this is b…….

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