As organiser of a local skeptics* club in Cork, it should come as no surprise that scepticism is a huge area of interest for me. There are a lot of issues in the public sphere that deserve critical examination. There is a need to promote scientific thinking in the public domain and there is a paramount need to counter poorly evidenced thinking, particularly around health and mental health issues. Finally, I seem drawn to weird and outrageous stuff, and where better to examine these than in a skeptics’ club?
There are, however, a number of considerations I need to make. First of all, it is impossible to know everything. No matter if I was an expert in some things (some if!), there would still be lots of areas I wouldn’t know well at all. Even the most ardent and knowledgable skeptics depend on what the experts in fields outside their area of speciality have to say. These experts can, of course, be all wrong, but it is a good assumption that they will, for the most part, be far less wrong than most non-experts.
Another consideration is that most of us skeptics may not have access to the full range of literature that professional scientists might have access to. Most scientific papers are only available to institutions, who pay big money for the privilege. The rest of us might be able to buy scientific papers online, but just a few purchases will be sufficient to clean out our bank accounts. Then there is the issue of interpreting them and reading them within the full context of literature on this subject. Just like swallows in summer, one paper is unlikely to provide a complete perspective and may in some cases be completely unrepresentative, so you need to do your homework. For us non-experts, this might even be a good thing. The field of pseudo-science is littered with people misreading scientific papers to lend support to their own crank ideas.
And, yes, it is true that science does not have all the answers. Science, at any time, only represents the best understanding of issues at that time. It can take years, perhaps even centuries, to arrive at insights that make sense of difficult problems. It is driven by humans, and the frontiers of science are often characterised by squabbles, ideological fixations and methodological shortcuts. It’s a messy process.
Ultimately it comes down to this: we base our perspectives from those we consider worthy of giving us an insight into matters we ourselves are not experts on. So what are we to make of it all? Should we reject science and scientific consensuses as mere opinions, to pick and choose from as we see fit? Knowing that we don’t have access to primary data, should we pack up and do something else more productive with our time?
Certainly, this would be the right thing to do if science was always getting it hopelessly wrong, no matter what the question was. But that’s not quite the case. It has limitations, sure, but it also has great strengths. Science is responsible for some of the biggest insights and greatest achievements our species has ever witnessed. Because of science, things work: whether it be airliners, stents or traffic management systems. Its power lies in is its ability to bolster opinion with reference to measurements of reality; to guard itself against biases; to focus on margins of error rather than absolutism; and to self-correct, even disposing of longstanding cherished theories if sufficiently strong evidence comes to light that contradicts them. This gives science a practical advantage over just about any other discipline that purports to explain reality.
Science works in terms of error bars. It does not promise absolute truth, but it helps to set limits on where that truth might be. The more research involved, the more validation and testing there has been, the narrower those error bars become. Science can therefore be more effective in telling us what is implausible, as it is about what actually makes sense. So, even though science can sometimes move in new and very interesting directions, long debunked ideas tend to remain debunked. Progress, in science, is characterised by a narrowing of error bars, not a widening.
Being a skeptic means that we accept, provisionally, the scientific consensus view, while remaining mindful that this view might shift with new data. We can, of course, be sceptical about the scientific consensus too, but doing so means that we should have grounds for this viewpoint. Not being sufficiently well grounded in these fields puts us at risk of getting the evidence, and underlying theories, all wrong.
Siding with the scientific consensus is an assumption most skeptics tend to make. I tend to think it’s a good assumption.
* Note: there is quite a bit of ambiguity this side of the water about the use of the “k” in skepticism. I tend to use it when referring to the skeptical movement, otherwise the c is probably better English. Probably…