September 24, 2021
What Makes a True Skeptic?
By Alfie Kohn
Imagine that you’ve spent a good part of your life vigorously defending a certain idea, only to hear that idea being invoked to justify something you find abhorrent. Perhaps you’re a strong supporter of academic freedom and a believer in considering multiple points of view — and then you discover that evolution deniers are using those exact phrases to demand that creationism be taught in science classes. Or maybe, after rhapsodizing for years about the importance of cooperation and harmony, you notice corporations using those very words to justify preventing workers from joining a union, which would be, you know, “divisive.”1 And you’re left stammering, along with J. Alfred Prufrock, “That is not what I meant at all.”2
Feel free to supply your own examples. Here’s mine: I’ve long been a champion of critical thinking, a bit suspicious of the Establishment and wary of conformity. I’ve emphasized the importance of helping children to become “reflective rebels” and I’ve proposed practical strategies to that end for teachers as well as parents.3 But these days “the term ‘skeptic,’ and in fact the format of skeptical analysis and debunking, has been hijacked by science deniers pretending to be skeptics, tarnishing the brand and sowing confusion.”4
“Don’t believe everything you’re told! Do your research!” is the self-satisfied challenge issued, disconcertingly, by antivaxxers, by those who reject climate-change science, by purveyors of nonsensical and dangerous claims about the 2020 election. When we shake our heads in horrified incredulity at discredited assertions plucked from the darkest recesses of the web, we are dismissed as naive “sheeple” who don’t dare to question the “official story.” Debunkers of the QAnon cult5 are said to be duped and in thrall to the conventional wisdom, whereas the peddlers of its intricate lunacies portray themselves as the true questioners and skeptics.
In short, the language of skepticism has been co-opted in order to lend credence to pseudoscience and conspiracy theories. It is a diabolical strategy even though most of those who have adopted it really do appear to regard themselves as brave truth-tellers. And it leaves long-time defenders of skepticism struggling to rescue the concept and make sense of what’s going on.
In search of answers, I dug into two recent books: Calling Bullshit: The Art of Skepticism in a Data-Driven World by biologists Carl T. Bergstrom and Jevin D. West (Random House, 2020), and The Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe by neurologist Steven Novella (Grand Central, 2018). Ironically, one can easily imagine either of those titles being used by the very people whose claims the books offer strategies for debunking — perhaps a Facebook page or Youtube video entitled “Calling Bullshit on Biden’s Victory” (or “…on the Effectiveness of Vaccines” or “…on Climate Change Alarmism”).
Both books provide useful criteria for distinguishing between specific assertions that are credible — or studies that are well-constructed — and those that aren’t. But it’s more challenging to specify when skepticism itself has been twisted into something terrible. How do we distinguish authentic or constructive skepticism from the faux kind?
It won’t do to say, “Real skeptics question x, not y” or “…the claims of these people rather than those people.” Progressives may be inclined to equate authentic skepticism with folks who share their political perspective, but bizarre conspiracy theories — to say nothing of dubious claims about vaccines and New Age magical phenomena — are by no means confined to those on the right. So, too, for the targets of skepticism: Opposition to Big Tech or disdain for the mainstream media or those who direct (or profit from) the global economy is found at both ends of the political spectrum. While a careful analysis might reveal important differences between critiques from the left and the right, the key point is that relying on one’s politics as a guide begs the question of why certain beliefs deserve to be regarded as trustworthy while other’s don’t.
What if our skepticism, then, hinges not on the identity of its object but on whether the subject has something to gain from a given claim? I’ve long endorsed the Latin question “Cui bono?” — Who benefits? — as an analytical tool, a pertinent response when, for example, more effort is devoted to equipping children with the right “mindset” to complete their tasks than to rethinking the quality of the curriculum. It’s worth asking “Cui bono?” whenever people are taught not to question the value of what they’ve been told to do but simply to toil away at it – and to regard persistence and self-discipline as virtuous. (The same thing is true when there’s more talk about the “career readiness” of graduates than about the number of good jobs available. Who stands to gain from focusing attention on the former rather than the latter?)
But while it’s certainly worth taking this consideration into account, I’m not sure it’s either a necessary or sufficient criterion for defining legitimate skepticism. Sometimes crazy, dangerous, or simply false ideas are propounded by people who don’t stand to gain (at least materially) from their acceptance. And sometimes valuable proposals come from those who do stand to benefit — such as Pfizer’s unsurprising endorsement of vaccinating as many people as possible against Covid-19.
Might it be more promising, then, to focus on what leads someone to be skeptical in general? The goal should be to get at the truth, but some people seem to respond critically to whatever they hear, more because it makes them feel superior (since negativity is thought to signal intelligence6) or bravely independent (even though some self-professed skeptics merely run with a different herd7 or uncritically accept the pronouncements of a different leader).
A certain calcified version of skepticism about what is generally accepted can shade into conspiracy theorizing — in which the favored theory, no matter how convoluted, is conveniently exempted from critical analysis. (In fact, any evidence that contradicts the theory is just regarded as further support for the conspiracy and proof of how widely it has spread.)8 Given what researchers have discovered about the psychological profiles of people attracted to conspiracy theories9, it’s not unreasonable to think that the motives for an individual’s skepticism might help us to determine how defensible it is, the ideal version being animated by a simple desire to know (and help others understand) what’s true. “Calling bullshit is not about making yourself look or feel smarter…[but] about making others smarter.”10 The practical problem with this criterion, however, is that almost everyone claims to be motivated by a quest for the truth.
Rather than looking to characteristics of the skeptic or the targets of his or her skepticism, perhaps we need to dig deeper into the nature of skepticism itself. A defining feature of genuine skepticism is that it isn’t employed to reach a foregone conclusion or to discredit a conclusion that one just doesn’t like. Novella refers to the latter as denialism and observes that it tries to pass itself off as legitimate skepticism just as pseudoscience mimics real science. He also identifies a favorite trick of denialists: the disingenuous “Hey, I’m just asking questions!” defense. “The same undermining questions [are asked] over and over…[and once denialists’] demands for evidence [are] met, they simply slide over to another question. Nothing will convince them because they’ve already decided on the answer.”11
A true skeptic is “critical” in both senses of that word — willing to challenge what is widely believed rather than taking it on faith,12 but also committed to relying on careful analysis. Skepticism and criticism come from Greek words meaning, respectively, to examine or investigate, and to judge or discern. But everything turns on the quality of that investigation. Finding a claim on Facebook is not the same thing as finding a claim that has been tested in a study published in a refereed journal.13 And even in the latter case, it makes sense to look at how the study was conducted, how large the effect size was, and whether it’s been replicated. (It’s cheating to cherry-pick an anomalous result that confirms what one already believes, ignoring a larger body of contrary evidence.)
When the difference in status between astronomy and astrology is erased, when claims about vaccines causing autism are treated as seriously as the solid science that has decisively refuted those claims, when anyone whose favored candidate loses an election can declare that the vote was rigged, then we have entered the poisonous realm of epistemic relativism: You have your truth and I have mine, and there’s no way to tell who’s right.
Genuine skepticism is constructed on a repudiation of such relativism, while faux skepticism thrives on it — and authoritarianism actively cultivates it.14 A genuine skeptic says, “I’m not sure whether to believe this,” which implies that belief is possible but hinges on the presentation of convincing evidence. A faux skeptic says, “You can’t believe anything people tell you” or — what paradoxically amounts to the same thing — “You can believe anything you want.” This becomes a nihilistic dismissal of the very idea of expertise, which of course is entirely different from a healthy skepticism of individual experts. The next thing you know, people aren’t just defiantly rejecting life-saving vaccines but raging at the doctors and scientists who are urging us to get them — and, in some cases, enthusiastically promoting disinfectants, an anti-malaria drug, and even a horse deworming agent to treat Covid. (It’s worth pondering why quack cures are particularly popular with authoritarian leaders, such as those in Brazil, Venezuela, and the U.S., and others on the far right.) The conspicuous absence of skepticism toward these snake-oil remedies — or, for that matter, toward preposterous conspiracy theories about the election — is what tips us off that the people involved are something other than honest skeptics.
Real skeptics aren’t just defined negatively by the absence of relativism, but positively by an openness to evidence. Specifically, I think of Karl Popper’s test of falsifiability: We should be prepared to say that something is true only if we can specify what would disprove it (and if we know that it hasn’t in fact been disproved). I would suggest adapting that theoretical test into this practical challenge for anyone who makes a claim: What would it take for you to change your mind? A skeptic would say, “Well, if it turned out that such-and-such were true, then I’d have to rethink my position.” A denialist or conspiracy theorist who is merely posing as a skeptic would likely come up with a reason to dismiss any disconfirming argument or evidence.15 (If you have a Facebook or Twitter account, you can watch that unfolding in real time.)
Of course we must be prepared to turn this challenge on ourselves, too, which means that skepticism is defined not only by falsifiability but also by humility. To question only your own ideas is to risk timidity and indecision, but to question only other people’s ideas is to risk hubris and stagnation. Neil Postman put the latter half of that formulation a bit more pungently: “At any given time, the chief source of bullshit with which you have to contend is yourself.” Beware of skepticism employed in a way that’s a little too convenient in that it just supports what you already believe. We’re all vulnerable to motivated reasoning and confirmation bias: We disproportionately notice and remember information that supports what we assume is true, and we construct justifications for arriving at the conclusions we prefer while finding reasons to ignore or dismiss anything that challenges those beliefs.
To be sure, no one has the time or intellectual bandwidth to question everything. We can’t live without assumptions that are taken to be true, at least provisionally.16 We rely on shortcuts, turning to certain thought leaders and reference groups we’ve already deemed trustworthy, in deciding which claims to accept. But a true skeptic has given careful thought to the criteria that make those people trustworthy. The educator Debbie Meier has suggested that for a school or classroom to be democratic doesn’t mean that every issue has to be discussed, only that every issue has to be discussable. Similarly, skepticism doesn’t require that all claims must be questioned but that all claims must be open to question. (And, as Carl Sagan reminded us, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.)
Anyone can profess to be a skeptic on the basis of doubting that astronauts really went to the moon, or that Biden was fairly elected in 2020, or that global warming is potentially catastrophic and largely caused by humans. But not all expressions of doubt — or belief — are equivalent; everything turns on whether and how a proposition is justified and what evidence would be sufficient to point us to a different conclusion.
1. Revealing to students the foundational role played by slavery and racism in U.S. history is also opposed in the name of avoiding divisiveness.
2. It’s worth pointing out that there’s a difference between deliberately co-opting an unexceptionable concept such as cooperation or academic freedom, on the one hand, and exploiting a concept that was actually flawed to begin with — or at least more ambiguous than was initially assumed — on the other. For an example of the latter, consider someone who praises the ideals of passion and persistence but is then caught off-guard upon noticing that some people are passionately and persistently doing terrible things.
4. Steven Novella, The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe (Grand Central, 2018), p. 376.
5. QAnon is a nightmarish blend of religious zealotry, fascism, and psychopathology. If one person ranted about satanic celebrity pedophile rings, we’d increase his meds. But in the United States, more than 40 million people report believing that George Soros and the Clintons drink children’s blood, and some of those people are winning elections, not to mention endorsements from the last President, who still commands the loyalty of one of our two major political parties. (Indeed, the worship — I choose the word advisedly — of Trump plays a prominent role in QAnon’s elaborate web of delusions.) As one summary explains, QAnon started with “a tinfoil-hat story about a D.C.-area pizza shop but [now] has elements…of a support group, a political party, a lifestyle brand, a collective delusion, a religion, a cult, a huge multiplayer game and an extremist network…[It] is extendable, adaptable, flexible and resilient to takedown.” For a more extensive account, see this article.
6. Certain scholars have honed their critical skills and polished their erudition until virtually any idea laid on their plate can be expertly filleted and dismissed. Despite the intimidating certitude with which such criticism is sometimes offered, however, reflexive skepticism or negativity may actually reflect the critic’s insecurity. In one study, psychologist Teresa Amabile and a colleague asked students to evaluate some written work. Those told that the quality of their evaluations would determine whether they’d be kept on as experts for another task were indeed more negative in their judgments than those who weren’t being judged. Amabile then set out to determine whether this sort of critical posture really does get interpreted as an indication of higher intelligence in the way that the critics apparently assumed. She presented a different set of subjects with two book reviews, one very positive about the book in question and the other equally negative. (The reviewer was the same in both cases to insure that the style was similar.) When each subject was asked to rate the reviewer on a range of traits, “the negative reviewer was seen as more intelligent and competent, with higher literary expertise, than the positive reviewer.” (Teresa M. Amabile and Ann H. Glazebrook. “A Negativity Bias in Interpersonal Evaluation,” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 18 : 1-22; and Teresa M. Amabile, “Brilliant but Cruel: Perceptions of Negative Evaluators,” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 19 : 146-56.)
7. Wry meme popular in the 1960s: “I want to be a nonconformist….just like everyone else.”
8. A joke circulating on social media: When two Trump supporters die, God meets them at the pearly gates and asks if they have any questions. They immediately ask, “What were the real results of the 2020 election and who was behind the fraud?” God replies, “There was no fraud. Biden won both the popular vote and the Electoral College fair and square.” After a stunned silence, one of the Trump supporters turns to the other and whispers, “This goes higher up than we thought.”
9. Conspiracy theories seem to help people cope with the threat of isolation and helplessness; they promise a way to resolve confusion, feel in control, and make sense of everything that all those unenlightened people have yet to understand. Of course, a desire for control or meaning in one’s life is hardly atypical or pathological, so the question is whether those who fall prey to conspiracy theories are just unusually susceptible to this extreme coping mechanism, or whether they experience the world as more confusing, isolating, and out of control than the rest of us do — perhaps partly because of an anxious style of attachment. [[Addendum 2023: For an updated review of research on the subject, see Shauna M. Bowes et al., “The Conspiratorial Mind: A Meta-Analytical Review of Motivational and Personological Correlates,” Psychological Bulletin 149 (2023): 259-93.]]
10. Calling Bullshit, op. cit., p. 286.
11. Skeptic’s Guide, op. cit., pp. 182, 184.
12. Faith means belief in the absence of evidence, so we might say that the opposite of a “person of faith” is a person of reason. Of course, most religious people are generally extreme skeptics about the claims of every religion except their own.
13. Onion headline: “Vaccine Skeptic Does Own Research By Enrolling 45,000 Friends in Double-Blind Clinical Trial.”
14. This is done by deliberately releasing disinformation that will be rapidly disseminated on social media, but also through systematic attempts to undermine professional journalism — for example, by referring to anything that challenges one’s own beliefs as “fake news”. “When the press as an institution is weakened, fact-based journalism becomes just one more drop in the daily deluge of content—no more or less credible than partisan propaganda,” McKay Coppins of the Atlantic argued in 2020. “Relativism is the real goal of Trump’s assault on the press.” Indeed, the practitioners of this black art are sometimes quite candid about their goals. Steve Bannon made it clear that the primary purpose of right-wing propaganda is not to support a given position but to “flood the zone with shit” — in other words, to disorient people, sideline the media, and replace skepticism (that could ultimately produce a verifiable conclusion) with cynicism (where no claim is more credible than any other). Thus can democracy be destroyed.
15. Some people may persist in making far-fetched, politically charged assertions despite overwhelming proof of their falsity for reasons other than a belief in their literal accuracy. Consider accusations of voter fraud — or, if you prefer, “skepticism” about evidence that such fraud is, in fact, virtually nonexistent these days — which are endorsed by nearly two thirds of Republicans. This, contends political journalist Jamelle Bouie, “is not a factual claim subject to testing and objective analysis as much as it’s a statement of ideology….To accuse Democrats of voter fraud is to say that Democratic voters are not legitimate political actors; that their votes do not count…; and that Democratic officials, elected with those illegitimate votes, have no rightful claim to power.”
16. Descartes’s motto — de omnibus dubitandum — isn’t realistic even in the rarefied realm of the thinker, let alone in the real world. Even radical epistemological skeptics look both ways before they cross the street. “The notion that we have reason to believe only what has been proved, in the sense of withstanding all possible doubts, cannot be lived with by most of us for even a moment” (Wayne C. Booth, Modern Dogma and the Rhetoric of Assent [University of Notre Dame Press, 1974], p. 66). Presumably it’s clear by now that I’m not concerned in this essay with philosophical skepticism, in which the possibility of knowledge itself is called into question, as argued by some ancient Greeks and some not-quite-so-ancient thinkers from France (Descartes, Voltaire, Montaigne) and Scotland (Hume).
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