Sunday, May 20, 2007

Trying to Define Skepticism

Skepticism is one of those words like “diversity” or “autism” that can be tricky to define. If you were to go on the street an ask people what it skepticism means you would probably get some real variety in terms of answers.

The publication Skeptic has an editorial that attempts to define skepticism. It is a crisp, interesting article with a brief reference to ancient Greek skepticism and a conclusion with a rephrasing of Descartes’ famous metaphysical equation.

However, the article really caught my attention because, it defines skepticism as a methodology. The editorial states “Skepticism is a method leading to provisional assent”. And that is a fine definition; unfortunately it isn’t true.

Skepticism is not a methodology, at the very least not in the singular sense of the word. People using skepticism do not address uniform problems. The method one would take to assess the statement “Some cows are black and white” look very different from assessing “I remember a past life as a ship captain”, which in turn looks different from trying to determine whether a Chi-square analysis was adequate, or a matched-pairs design was sufficiently well controlled.

It is not simply the complexity, that makes these examples different, it is the nature of the hoops we have to jump through, and the level of certainty we can have after investigation. If anything, it would have to be many smaller methodologies specific to each type of problem.

I would argue that even that, is not enough, you need to have logic is your assessment. I would define logic as:

The valid rationalizations by which we could potentially withhold provisional assent.

And methods as:

The controls one places in a trial in an attempt to see if we can withhold provisional assent.

Now maybe some of you are wondering why my language was worded so strangely. I didn’t say “give provisional assent” or “prove”. That is because in research (or in group based statistical research) we don’t try to prove an effect; arguably we can’t prove an effect. So, instead we try to see if there is no relationship, we call this the null hypothesis. We are attempting to show that there is not a relationship, and to do this we have to make our ideas potentially falsifiable. And that is why; we do not prove the hypothesis, but reject the null hypothesis.

Again, I want to stress why logic and methods must go hand in hand. I will provide examples below:

1) I hypothesize that 1 + 1 equals 2. Logically I know that I should be able to add 2 objects together to test this hypothesis. I choose to do this using water. I add 1 drop, then a second, but I end up with only 1 larger water drop. My logic was impeccable, but my methods, were not well suited to the task.

2) I hypothesize that the ability to sling webs out of one’s hands comes from watching television. I compare the number of reported cases of people with web slinging abilities in New York to the average amount of television viewed by New Yorkers. My logic does not allow me to determine a relationship here, even if my statistical methods were appropriate and rigorous.

3) I opine that a particular Polar Bear is white. I observe the bear in the sunlight and I notice that it is white; I later observe it by accident in the shade and notice that it was distinctly brown. In this case both the methods and the logic need some work.

7 Comments:

Blogger daedalus2u said...

I might suggest something else. A skeptic has 5 categories to put statements into.
1. Known to be true, axiomatic, true via deductive logic, example 1+1=2.
2. Granted provisionally true status, Heliocentric model of solar system.
3. Of unknown truth value, life on other planets,
4. Granted provisionally false status, technologically advanced alien civilization on Mars.
5. Known to be false, 1+1=3

These are the only "truth values" that a skeptic can hold. The default is 3.

A non-skeptic has 2 other "truth values"
6. "True" by reason of faith.
7. "False" by reason fo faith.
These trump all others including 1 and 5.

What it actually boils down to, is that the non-skeptic has a different meaning for the concept "truth". What the non-skeptic means is "compatable with my faith based beliefs".

10:29 AM  
Blogger Interverbal said...

Good points to think. I would argue though, that this is still too simple to adequately explain the skeptic non-skeptic viewpoints.

For example let's look at your #5. If I dropped on water droplet into another, it possible that it could splash into 3 smaller droplets. In this case my methods creates a different answer to what is almost everywhere else a fact.

This happens inreal life too. Case in point would be the scientists who try and prove that highly diluted solutions of homeopaths are potentized due to some quantum effect.

This information if true, would certainly modify a hefty amount of chemistry and medicine. That happens sometimes.

Bernard Rimland in one of his most lucid and excellent moments, suggested that science is not so much like building a pyramid, but like doing a cross-word puzzle, where one answer sometimes means we have to erase and find a new answer in another box.

Of course, another possibility is that the scientist messed up their methodology.

I also would put several more slots between 3 and 4. In some cases evidence builds, but only in short occasional spurts.

I also would add several categories to the non-skeptic view-point.

Invalid inductions, proof by psychological attachment, and proof by hope, at the very least.

2:30 PM  
Blogger laurentius rex said...

The only way to define scepticism is to doubt its existence.

4:55 PM  
Anonymous mike stanton said...

I sometimes wonder if attempts to define concepts are the way to go. Perhaps trying to understand skepticism as a historical phenomenon would be more productive. Skepticism arose when faith based solutions were no longer sustainable in the face of discoveries of solutions to real world problems that contradicted previously held wisdom.
"But it [meaning the earth] still moves!" as Galileo is alleged to have muttered under his breath while acquiescing to papal infallibility in the interests of personal survival.

5:17 PM  
Blogger daedalus2u said...

I wasn't clear. 1+1=2 is an abstraction with abstract entities. It is a hypothesis that this abstraction applies to the real world.

It obviously doesn't apply in the context of droplets.

Lots of geometry stuff only applies in a space that is flat. It isn't clear if it really applies or not to our space.

There is a continuum between 2 and 4. Different skeptics might put different statements at different places on that continuum. Obviously it will depend on your knowledge and how you understand that knowledge to fit together.

Things in 1 and 5 are demonstrable by proof, so there isn't really any question about them. The question is whether any of them apply to the real world, and how much, and in what manner. Your drop hypothesis would be a valid experiment, and would show that number of drops isn't additive, but mass of drops is.

I think there only needs to be one method in the non-skeptic viewpoint. Maybe it is simply "non-evidence based". But maybe there needs to be an "unknowable" category too for the non-skeptic.

6:31 PM  
Blogger Bob King said...

I'd like to add one fallacious argument that is used by Psycops a lot. (I refer to them as "junk skeptics" a great deal.)

In the most obvious form, the Amazing Randi demonstrates that he can construct an illusion that appears to replicate the reported phenomenon. It is therefore stated or implied (depending on how religiously skeptical one is) that it is therefore proven that the phenomenon was in fact a deliberate hoax.

I, for instance, find it far more plausible that I could be dowsing or remote viewing than I could be creating an illusion or impression of the same phenomenon. Not because I'm a great dowser or remote viewer, but because creating a successful illusion of that sort is specialized and non-trivial.

One fallacy that goes hand in hand with this one is the assertion that as there is no scientifically established means by which a thing, assertion or phenomena could be true, it is therefore false.

I consider myself a very skeptical person - and cynical to boot, and yet I believe all sorts of things that the usual skeptics would - and indeed do - consider delusional.

That's because I refuse to disbelieve the evidence of my own eyes and other senses - BUT, this leads us to another commonly fallacious circumstance:

The fact that one is seeing does not equate with an understanding of that phenomenon. In other words a UFO is just that. An Unidentified Flying Object. The fact that it is legitimately and genuinely unidentified and unidentifiable does not mean it's either of extraterrestrial origin OR that it's mass hysteria.

If you could prove it one way or another, it would have been "identified."

Of course, I try to be like Heinlein's "Fair Witness;" if asked to report what I see over yonder, I will report that I see a building who's architecture suggests an agricultural purpose and which is painted red on the side or sides visible to me. To state that it is a "red barn" is simply speculation, no matter how likely it is to be true.

5:38 PM  
Blogger laurentius rex said...

Maria Marten and the Red Barn, what has this got to do with anything?

Lewis Mumford once said that there is ostensibly no difference in the distant aspect of Coucy le Chateau and a Gasometer it is all in the perception of the beholder that one is an ancient monument.

Me I think the gasometer is too, but for sheer mass and artistry give me Rugby Cement works http://www.larry-arnold.info/photography/Rugby/index.htm

5:40 PM  

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