Monthly Archives: February 2010
As a skeptic, I doubt. But to what extent and under what circumstances does it remain reasonable to doubt? Does being a ‘true’ skeptic mean that I should doubt absolutely anything and everything, even my own skepticism? My view is that it is untenable to doubt literally everything, not logically possible to do so coherently.
To reject all claims to fact because one cannot confirm or know something absolutely, to practice epistemic nihilism, is, I hold, manifestly unreasonable. I hold further that it is rational to accept the statements of trained experts, not on the basis of authoritarian dogma, but upon the known reliability of those statements they have made and continue to make when speaking within their area of expertise, their area of competence, and so long as one is not given sound cause to doubt those statements.
This is not to say that someone can only be trusted within the confines of a series of letters before or after their names, within the restrictions of a piece of paper hanging from the wall behind their desk, or only within the limits of a narrow specialty, for some people have stellar competency in a number of areas by way of prior training and experience — true polymaths — though these are uncommon to say the least. Sadly, much to my chagrin (Cool! I actually have a chagrin!), I am not one of these.
It IS to say, however, that when any claimed expert makes a statement of fact, that the alleged expert in question be known as reliably trustworthy and to have sufficient ability or familiarity with the matter expounded upon. All it takes to verify someone’s claimed credentials is a simple mouse-click or phone call to the right person.
Do I claim academic or scientific expertise? Well, not yet — though I do have a number of interests that led me to familiarity with certain topics in addition to skeptical issues: for one, as a Cthulhu Mythos geek I can spout off the names, proper pronunciations of said names, the origins, habits, histories, home planets, and even biological details of a variety of Lovecraftian monsters and gods, though this is not much help outside of role-playing gaming circles. It has led, however, to my screen-name and the name of this blog. But I’ve rambled enough…
Knowledge exists, and some people have more than others. This is a fact of life. Those who have more we call ‘experts.’ The fact, the recognition, that some have more knowledge than others is not elitism. To reject this on the basis that it offends one’s beliefs or disagrees with one’s ideology, claims of an ‘establishment’ conspiracy, or simply on reflexive contrarianism, is not skeptical, and not rational. It is to deny, not to seek the truth, but to obstinately refuse it.
What this boils down to is my view that experts acting within their field should generally be trusted, though with the concession that no one is infallible, no one person is an expert in everything, and no one can see the whole picture all by himself or herself — believer or skeptic. That takes the work of a community of experts coming to a broad consensus, which unlike a political consensus is not groupthink, not a vote, and not a popularity contest.
A consensus is reached only after the differences, biases, and other individual quirks have been hammered out, and an overall view, that of the Big Picture is achieved within that community. A scientific consensus, even though still not completely infallible, is a recognition of reality at any given time. Unless there is good reason to do otherwise, a consensus by a community of experts can generally be trusted, more so than the claims of any single individual.
Those who a priori reject the conclusions obtained from a large body of carefully gathered evidence, and who claim that the process of science is somehow broken and that the entire scientific community is wrong, must be able to objectively demonstrate how and why all the experts are wrong and where and how the system is broken or their claims cannot be taken seriously. Sorry, but them’s the breaks…
To me, the investigation of dubious claims takes a back seat to increasing my understanding of the psychology of belief. I don’t want to prejudge people, I want to actually understand how, why, and in what way people, from believers to skeptics and everyone in between believe what they do. I want to know, not just suppose, how belief structures are formed, acquired and protected by those who hold them.
Most people are fairly decent as long as you leave them alone, and many of my friends, loved ones, and casual acquaintances are themselves prone to views and beliefs that I myself don’t harbor. They’re wonderful people, though some times there are a few that for the sake of my sanity, I can only take in small doses.
There’s a chap whose blog I sometimes frequent, a professed psychic whom I have reason to believe is sincere, and whom I can respect, though not without some criticism at times. Does he really have psychic abilities?
As a skeptic, I agree to disagree with him on the validity of psi-research, so as to avoid providing tinder for the common believer straw man of skeptics, I won’t argue from the impossibility of psi, only its implausibility given our current understanding of physical laws.
Will psi ever be reliably demonstrated no matter who is conducting the study protocol, regardless of their personal beliefs and attitudes? I don’t think that the history of psi-research paints a very pretty picture, and I don’t think it’s likely that this will happen, but it would be cool. All hail discordia!
UFO believers who wish to claim an air of scientific legitimacy, or on the other hand perhaps as a sort of tu-quoque argument, will often compare UFOlogy with the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI) program. It seems to me that they are vastly different, and hardly comparable. Any attempt to compare them is a false analogy.
First, the questions they ask are logically distinct, for where SETI basically asks “Is there intelligent life elsewhere in the universe?,” and answers this with “Perhaps,” UFO ‘experts’ ask “Are we being visited by intelligent life from elsewhere in the universe?,” and answer this with an unequivocal “Yes!” The tentative thinking of the one, and the certitude of thought of the other alone is enough to set them apart.
SETI doesn’t presume the existence of aliens, it merely concedes that they are possible, and probable, unlike UFOlogists who presuppose the existence, and in a further logical leap, the visitation of Earth, of and by intelligent beings from other worlds as a given by definition.
SETI, unlike most UFO organizations, employs a rigorous approach to evidence, and upon the reception of any seemingly anomalous signals from space, first attempt to eliminate and isolate as many conventional sources of random noise and signal aberrations as are then conceivable, before accounting for all and even then, do not rush to declare to the media the announcement of alien contact, employing multiple independent confirmations and cross-checking before making a statement.
After all, if alien intelligence were a certainty, why look? A good example of the process is described in Carl Sagan’s novel Contact, which describes it in more detail than I can go into here.
This is in stark contrast with many UFOlogists, who not only express a certainty of the existence of ETIs, but declare that they are already here, and that impending evidence to reveal the Truth™ of the alien presence by the governments of the world is ‘just around the corner.’ They’ve been saying that for decades now, conspiratorial claims and all.
This, in spite of what we have good reason to think we know at present of the size and age of the universe, the evolution of life on Earth, and the limits on interstellar, much less intergalactic, travel imposed by distance and currently understood physical laws, even near-light velocity travel.
SETI is science, using probabilistic thinking, scientific methodology, and logic, employing an extremely high bar for evidence, for the stakes of the discovery of alien intelligence would be high, and would have a monumental impact on human society. If they are to confirm such contact, they must make sure that no mistakes are made, because the world is watching.
UFO mythology, on the other hand, is pseudoscience, declaring as a proven fact alien visitation and employing at times near-nonexistent standards of evidence, conspiracy theories, logical fallacies, and otherwise unscientific reasoning. It is also a pronounced failure of the human imagination. And this is supplemented by a naive, sometimes callous, disregard for the human fallibilities of even the most dependable eyewitnesses and the anecdotal testimony they relate, not realizing that a mountain of crappy evidence is still crap.
Mind you, I’m not anti-alien, and as a science-fiction fan I would be delighted if we made such contact. But if it comes down to either declaring alien visitation every time there’s an odd light in the sky, or using science and reason to confirm genuine extraterrestrial contact beyond a reasonable doubt, I’ll opt for the latter, thank you very much.