The Burden of Skepticism
by Larry Zimmerman
A lecture based heavily on Carl Sagan's article of the same title

What is Skepticism?

It's nothing very esoteric. We encounter it every day.

When we buy a used car, if we are the least bit wise we will exert some residual skeptical powers-whatever our education has left to us.

You could say, "Here's an honest-looking fellow. I'll just take whatever he offers me." Or you might say, "Well, I've heard that occasionally there are small deceptions involved in the sale of a used car, perhaps inadvertent on the part of the salesperson," and then you do something. You kick the tires, you open the doors, you look under the hood. (You might go through the motions even if you don't know what is supposed to be under the hood, or you might bring a mechanically inclined friend.) You know that some skepticism is required, and you understand why. It's upsetting that you might have to disagree with the used-car salesman or ask him questions that he is reluctant to answer. There is at least a small degree of interpersonal confrontation involved in the purchase of a used car and nobody claims it is especially pleasant. But there is a good reason for it-because if you don't exercise some minimal skepticism, if you have an absolutely untrammeled credulity, there is probably some price you will have to pay later.

Then you'll wish you had made a small investment of skepticism early.

Now this is not something that you have to go through four years of graduate school to understand. Everybody understands this. The trouble is, a used car is one thing but television commercials or pronouncements by presidents and party leaders another.

We are skeptical in some areas but unfortunately not in others.

For example, there is a class of aspirin commercials that reveals the competing product to have only so much of the painkilling ingredient that doctors recommend most-they don't tell you what the mysterious ingredient is-whereas their product has a dramatically larger amount (1.2 to 2 times more per tablet). Therefore you should buy their product. But why not just take two of the competing tablets?

You're not supposed to ask. Don't apply skepticism to this issue. Don't think. Buy.

Such claims in commercial advertisements constitute small deceptions. They part us from a little money, or induce us to buy a slightly inferior product. It's not so terrible. But consider this:

The program of the 1987 Whole Life Expo in San Francisco contains amazing claims. Twenty thousand people attended the program. Here are some of the presentations: "Alternative Treatments for AIDS Patients: it will rebuild one's natural defenses and prevent immune system breakdowns-learn about the latest developments that the media has thus far ignored." That presentation could possibly do real harm. "How Trapped Blood Proteins Produce Pain and Suffering." "Crystals, Are They Talismans or Stones?" (I have an opinion myself) It says, "As a crystal focuses sound and light waves for radio and television" crystal sets are rather a long time ago-"so may it amplify spiritual vibrations for the attuned human." I'll bet very few of you are attuned. Or here's one: "Return of the Goddess, a Presentational Ritual." Another: "Synchronicity, the Recognition Experience." That one is given by "Brother Charles.

Or, on the next page, "You, Saint-Germain, and Healing Through the Violet Flame." It goes on and on, with lots of ads about "opportunities"-ranging from the dubious to the spurious-that are available at the Whole Life Expo.

If you were to drop down on Earth at any time during the tenure of humans you would find a set of popular, more or less similar, belief systems. They change, often very quickly, often on time scales of a few years: But sometimes belief systems of this sort last for many thousands of years. At least a few are always available. I think it's fair to ask why. We are Homo sapiens. That's the distinguishing characteristic about us, that sapiens part. We're supposed to be smart. So why is this stuff always with us?

Well, for one thing, a great many of these belief systems address real human needs that are not being met by our society.

There are unsatisfied medical needs, spiritual needs, and needs for communion with the rest of the human community. There may be more such failings in our society than in many others in human history.

And so it is reasonable for people to poke around and try on for size various belief systems, to see if they help.

For example, take a fashionable fad, channeling.

It has for its fundamental premise, as does spiritualism, that when we die we don't exactly disappear, that some part of us continues. That part, we are told, can reenter the bodies of human and other beings in the future, and so death loses much of its sting for us personally. What is more, we have an opportunity, if the channeling contentions are true, to make contact with loved ones who have died.Most of us would be delighted if reincarnation were real. If you've lost a loved one, you would probably love to have a little conversation with them, to tell them what the kids are doing, make sure everything is all right wherever it is they are.

That touches something very deep. But at the same time, precisely for that reason, there are people who will try to take advantage of the vulnerabilities of the bereaved. The spiritualists and the channelers better have a compelling case.

Or take the idea that by thinking hard at geological formations you can tell where mineral or petroleum deposits are.

Uri Geller makes this claim. Now if you are an executive of a mineral exploration or petroleum company, your bread and butter depend on finding the minerals or the oil: so spending trivial amounts of money, compared with what you usually spend on geological exploration, this time to find deposits psychically, sounds not so bad. You might be tempted.

Just like the developers and dowsers in last weeks video.

Or take UFOS, the contention that beings in spaceships from other worlds are visiting us all the time.

Most find that a thrilling idea. It's at least a break from the ordinary. Many like Sagan spent a fair amount of time in their scientific life working on the issue of the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. Think how much effort he could have saved if those guys were coming here.

But when we recognize some emotional vulnerability regarding a claim, that is exactly where we have to make the firmest efforts at skeptical scrutiny. That is where we can be had.

Now, let's reconsider channeling.

There is a woman in the State of Washington who claims to make contact with a 35,000-year-old somebody, "Ramtha"-she, by the way, speaks English very well with what sounds to me to be an Indian accent. Suppose we had Ramtha here and just suppose Ramtha is cooperative. We could ask some questions: How do we know that Ramtha lived 35,000 years ago? Who is keeping track of the intervening millennia? How does it come to be exactly 35,000 years? That's a very round number. Thirty-five thousand plus or minus what? What were things like 35,000 years ago? What was the climate? Where on Earth did Ramtha live? (he speaks English with an Indian accent, but where was that?) What does Ramtha eat? (Archaeologists know something about what people ate back then.) We would have a real opportunity to find out if his claims are true.If this were really somebody from 35,000 years ago, you could learn a lot about 35,000 years ago. So, one way or another, either Ramtha really is 35,000 years old, in which case we discover something about that period-that's before the Wisconsin Ice Age, an interesting time-or he's a phony and he'll slip up. What are the indigenous languages, what is the social structure, who else does Ramtha live with-children, grandchildren-what's the life cycle, the infant mortality, what clothes does he wear, what's his life expectancy, what are the weapons, plants, and animals?

Tell us. Instead, what we hear are the most banal homilies, indistinguishable from those that alleged UFO occupants tell the poor humans who claim to have been abducted by them.

Occasionally, by the way, Sagan used to get a letters from someone who was in "contact" with an extraterrestrial who invited him to "ask anything." And so he had a list of questions. The extraterrestrial are very advanced, remember.

So he asked things like, "Please give a short proof of Fermat's Last Theorem." Or the Goldbach Conjecture. And then he had to explain what these are, because extraterrestrials will not call it Fermat's Last Theorem, so he wrote out the little equation with the exponents.He never got an answer.On the other hand, if he asked something like "Should we humans be good?" he always got an answer.

Something can be deduced from this differential ability to answer questions. Anything vague they are extremely happy to respond to, but anything specific, where there is a chance to find out if they actually know anything, there is only silence.

The French scientist Henri Poincar6 remarked on why credulity is rampant: "We also know how cruel the truth often is, and we wonder whether delusion is not more consoling." That's what these examples provided by Sagan demonstrate.

But I don't think that's the only reason credulity is rampant. Skepticism challenges established institutions.

If we teach everybody, let's say high school students, the habit of being skeptical, perhaps they will not restrict their skepticism to aspirin commercials and 35,000-year-old channelers (or channelees). Maybe they'll start asking awkward questions about economic, or social, or political, or religious institutions. Then where will we be?

Skepticism is dangerous. That's exactly its function. It is the business of skepticism to be dangerous. And that's why there is a great reluctance to teach it in the schools. That's why you don't find a general fluency in skepticism in the media. On the other hand, how will we negotiate a very perilous future if we don't have the elementary intellectual tools to ask searching questions of those nominally in charge, especially in a democracy?I want to say a little more about the burden of skepticism. You can get into a habit of thought in which you enjoy making fun of all those other people who don't see things as dearly as you do. This is a potential social danger. We have to guard carefully against it.

What is called for is an exquisite balance between two conflicting needs: the most skeptical scrutiny of all hypotheses that are served up to us and at the same time a great openness to new ideas.

Obviously those two modes of thought are in some tension. But if you are able to exercise only one of these modes, whichever one it is, you're in deep trouble.If you are only skeptical, then no new ideas make it through to you.

You never learn anything new. You become a crotchety old person convinced that nonsense is ruling the world. (There is, of course, much data to support you.)

But every now and then, maybe once in a hundred cases, a new idea turns out to be on the mark, valid and wonderful.If you are too much in the habit of being skeptical about everything, you are going to miss or resent it, and either way you will be standing in the way of understanding and progress.On the other hand, if you are open to the point of gullibility and have not an ounce of skeptical sense in you, then you cannot distinguish the useful as from the worthless ones. If all ideas have equal validity then you are lost, because then, it seems to me, no ideas have any validity at all.

Some ideas are better than others. The machinery for distinguishing them is an essential tool in dealing with the world and especially in dealing with the future. And it is precisely the mix of these two modes of thought that is central to the success of science.

Really good scientists do both. On their own, talking to themselves, they churn up huge numbers of new ideas and criticize them ruthlessly.

Most of the ideas never make it to the outside world.

Only the ideas that pass through rigorous self-filtration make it out and are criticized by the rest of the scientific community.It sometimes happens that ideas that are accepted by everybody turn out to be wrong, or at least partially wrong, or at least superseded by ideas of greater generality. And, while there are of course some personal losses -- emotional bonds to the idea that you yourself played a role inventing -- nevertheless the collective ethic is that every time such an idea is overthrown and replaced by something better the enterprise of science has benefited. In science it often happens that scientists say, "You know that's a really good argument; my position is mistaken," and then they actually change their minds and you never hear that old view from them again. They really do it.

It doesn't happen as often as it should, because scientists are human and change is sometimes painful. But it happens every day. 1 cannot recall the last time something like that has happened in politics or religion. It's very rare that a senator, say, replies, "That's a good argument. I will now change by political affiliation."

In the history of science there is an instructive procession for major intellectual battles that turn out, all of them, to be about how central human beings are. We could call them battles about the anti-Copernican conceit.Here are some of the issues:

A lot of people liked it because it gave them a personally unwarranted central position in the Universe. The mere fact that you were on Earth made you privileged. That felt good. Then along came the evidence that Earth was just a planet and that those other bright moving points of light were planets too. Disappointing. Even depressing. Better when we were central and unique.

Then along comes Darwin. We find an evolutionary continuum. We're closely connected to the other beasts and vegetables. What's more, the closest biological relatives to us are chimpanzees. Those are our close relatives-those guys? It's an embarrassment. Did you ever go to the zoo and watch them? Do you know what they do? Imagine in Victorian England, when Darwin produced this insight, what an awkward truth it was.

If there are no other smart guys elsewhere, even if we are connected to chimpanzees, even if we are in the boondocks of a vast and awesome universe, at least there is still something special about us. But the moment we find extraterrestrial intelligence that last bit of conceit is gone. Some of the resistance to the idea of extraterrestrial intelligence is due to the anti-Copernican conceit. Likewise, without taking sides in the debate on whether other animals-higher primates, especially great apes-are intelligent or have language, that's clearly, on an emotional level, the same issue. If we define humans as creatures who have language and no one else has language, at least we are unique in that regard.

But if it turns out that all those dirty, repugnant, laughable chimpanzees can also, with Ameslan or otherwise, communicate ideas, then what is left that is special about us?

Propelling emotional predispositions on these issues are present, often unconsciously, in scientific debates. It is important to realize that scientific debates, just like pseudoscientific debates, can be awash with emotion, for these among many different reasons.

After Sagan's article "The Fine Art of Baloney Detection" came out in Parade (Feb. 1, 1987), he got, as you might imagine, a lot of letters. Sixty-five million people read Parade.

In the article he gave a long list of things that he said were "demonstrated or presumptive baloney'-thirty or forty items. Advocates of all those positions were uniformly offended, so he got lots of letters.

He also gave a set of very elementary prescriptions about how to think about baloney-arguments from authority don't work, every step in the chain of evidence has to be valid, and so on. Lots of people wrote back, saying, "You're absolutely right on the generalities; unfortunately that doesn't apply to my particular doctrine."

For example, one letter writer said the idea that intelligent life exists outside the earth is an excellent example of baloney. He concluded, "I am as sure of this as of anything in my experience. There is no conscious life anywhere else in the Universe. Mankind thus returns to its rightful position as center of the Universe."

Another writer again agreed with all his generalities, but said that as an inveterate skeptic Sagan had closed his mind to the truth. Most notably that he ignored the evidence for an Earth that is six thousand years old.

Well, he hadn't ignored it; he considered the purported evidence and then rejected it.

There is a difference, and this is a difference, we might say, between prejudice and postjudice.

Prejudice is making a judgment before you have looked at the facts. Postjudice is making a judgment afterwards. Prejudice is terrible, in the sense that you commit injustices and you make serious mistakes. Postjudice is not terrible. You can't be perfect of course; you may make mistakes also.

But it is permissible to make a judgment after you have examined the evidence. In some circles it is even encouraged.

I believe that part of what propels science is the thirst for wonder. It's a very powerful emotion. All children feel it.

In a first grade classroom everybody feels it; in a twelfth grade classroom almost nobody feels it, or at least acknowledges it. Something happens between first and twelfth grade, and it's not just puberty. Not only do the schools and the media not teach much skepticism, there is also little encouragement of this stirring sense of wonder. Science and pseudoscience both arouse that feeling.

Poor popularizations of science establish an ecological niche for pseudoscience.

If science were explained to the average person in a way that is accessible and exciting, there would be no room for pseudoscience. But there is a kind of Gresham's Law by which in popular culture the bad science drives out the good.

And for this I think we have to blame, first, the scientific community ourselves for not doing a better job of popularizing science, and second, the media, which are in this respect almost uniformly dreadful.

Every newspaper in America has a daily astrology column. How many have even a weekly astronomy column? And I believe it is also the fault of the educational system. We do not teach how to think.

This is a very serious failure that may even, in a world still rigged with thousands of nuclear weapons, compromise the human future.

I maintain there is much more wonder in science than in pseudoscience.

And in addition, to whatever measure this term has any meaning, science has the additional virtue, and it is not an inconsiderable one, of being true.

Graphic Rule

larry-zimmerman@uiowa.edu
University of Iowa Anthropology
08/18/98