June 16, 2012, by Brigitte Nerlich

Scepticism: Process, not position

Scepticism activism

Scepticism is as old as human thinking, as old as philosophy and as old as science. Most recently scepticism has, on the one hand, become embroiled in a major controversy about climate change, and on the other hand scepticism has also become a form of activism, with Skeptics in the Pub being a major example. The main aim of this and similar movements is to dispel myths, for example, about creationism or homeopathy. People who engage in this form of ‘skepticism’ activism use the ‘k’ to mark a difference between this scepticism and, according to Alex Pryce of the Scottish Skeptics Society, ‘the more cynical connotations of the word’.

Cynical scepticism

What are the more cynical connotations of the word scepticism?  Pryce goes on to say in this interview with BBC news: “I think a lot of people confuse scepticism with cynicism. …That’s a tendency to reject ideas out of hand without giving them any real consideration, and that’s not what scepticism is about. Scepticism isn’t a set of beliefs. It’s a system of inquiry that ultimately gives people the ability to understand the world around them – and I think that’s a really positive thing.” This type of non-cynical scepticism is often described as rational scepticism.

Rational and irrational scepticism

I recently read Adam Corner’s brilliant interview with a climate sceptic. When reading this interview it becomes clear that the interviewed climate ‘sceptic’ would never accept the label ‘irrational’. On the contrary, he would probably use the term ‘irrational’ for those that some climate sceptics call ‘warmists’, i.e. those that accept rather than reject the theory of anthropogenic climate change and global warming. In the interview the sceptic also rejects the label ‘denier’ which is sometimes used to draw a line between opposing views and groups in the ideological battle about climate change. The word ‘denier’ is used on both sides of the current climate change (scepticism) debate to distinguish between what one may call the in-group and the out-group. As the UK Skeptics group pointed out, for example: “We are nothing to do with opposition, activist, or denialist groups who wrongly refer to themselves as ‘skeptics’ because they adopt a position of non-belief (eg global warming skeptics, vaccine skeptics, etc).”

Active scepticism

In this battle for the best scepticism in the context of climate change, the terms scepticism and sceptic are gradually losing their meaning. There is a real danger inherent in this semantic loss or semantic attrition. The danger lies in adopting ‘scepticism’ as a position or attitude instead of living it as a process. It is easy to adopt scepticism as a position from which to pronounce on certain issues, such as climate change, or to use ‘sceptic’ as a label to attack opposing positions. It is much more difficult to live scepticism as a process, as in what Johann Wolfgang von Goethe called  ‘active scepticism’: “An active scepticism is one which constantly aims at overcoming itself, and arriving by means of regulated experience at a kind of conditioned certainty.” Adopting this perspective, one can say that although scepticism may usefully be seen as a process, it is not an infinite regress. One can reach a point at which ‘conditioned certainty’ emerges. This view obviates the situation in which contemporary climate scientists seem to find themselves. A point of conditioned certainty has been reached but certain sceptical opponents either conflate this with what some call dogmatic certainty unworthy of trust or as hiding an inexhaustible multitude of uncertainties. From both points of view political actions based on science become impossible.

Science and scepticism

This brings us to another danger in adopting scepticism as a position rather than a process. Positions always call forth opposing positions, with each calling the other ‘the wrong kind of scepticism’. Adopting polarised positions (or attitudes) makes it impossible to see the elephant, indeed the two elephants, standing in the battlefield between these positions, namely science and, in the current, most prominent, ideological skirmish, the climate. Science becomes almost a swear-word for some, something to be saved at all costs for others. The question of whether and how to deal with climate change is completely sidelined and easily forgotten.

Moderate scepticism

The whole issue of science and scepticism is nicely discussed in a blog entitled ‘What if anything can sceptics say about science?’ The blog makes a case for what one might call a moderate scepticism, a perspective which echoes to some extent the views expressed by Bertrand Russell in his essay ‘On the value of scepticism’: “I advocate a middle position. There are matters about which those who have investigated them are agreed; the dates of eclipses may serve as an illustration. There are other matters about which experts are not agreed. Even when the experts all agree, they may well be mistaken. Einstein’s view as to the magnitude of the deflection of light by gravitation would have been rejected by all experts not many years ago, yet it proved to be right. Nevertheless the opinion of experts, when it is unanimous, must be accepted by non-experts as more likely to be right than the opposite opinion. The scepticism that I advocate amounts only to this: (1) that when the experts are agreed, the opposite opinion cannot be held to be certain; (2) that when they are not agreed, no opinion can be regarded as certain by a non-expert; and (3) that when they all hold that no sufficient grounds for a positive opinion exist, the ordinary man would do well to suspend his judgment. These propositions may seem mild, yet, if accepted, they would absolutely revolutionize human life.” Wouldn’t that be great!

Scepticism, truth and certainty

The blog mentioned above also talks about lay and expert sceptics, an interesting distinction, which one might want to explore further within a Collins and Evans framework of a sociological exploration of (scientific) expertise. One might also want to analyse its relation with what others have called informed vs excessive scepticism, for example. I myself find it quite fruitful to distinguish between ‘organised scepticism‘, which is the life-blood of science; ‘active scepticism’, which is at the core of (science) communication and investigative journalism, and ‘special interest scepticism‘ (which is often related to the interests of powerful groups or businesses). However, all these distinctions need to be used with great care so as to avoid building them up as opposing positions which then undermine the process of scepticism and search for what Goethe called ‘conditioned certainty’.

I therefore think that the general definition of sceptic as provided for example by the Oxford English Dictionary (“A seeker after truth; an inquirer who has not yet arrived at definite conclusions.”) may be misleading and that Goethe provides a better philosophy of scepticism. We might not ever be able to reach ‘the truth’, but we can find some temporary valid ‘conclusions’. This may be the only way to achieve what Robert Merton called “the institutional goal of science”, namely, “the extension of certified knowledge”, which should not be confused with the establishment of absolute certainty. This might also be the only solid ground on which to build science-based policy.


Posted in Climate ChangeClimate PoliticsDefinition of ScienceScepticismScience CommunicationScience PolicyUncertainty