The Skeptic’s Uphill Battle

Something’s been kicking around in my head through pretty well through every panel on the skeptic track, forming sort of an overarching theme, about the uphill battle against which the skeptical “movement” (if there is such a beast) faces. And that centers around the old quote: “A lie can get halfway around the world before the truth can get out of bed”.

It’s undeniable that there is an objective truth of the universe. This universe works a certain way, period, and though that way may be mysterious, it is internally self-consistent. Even if the “rules” by which the universe plays, happens to differ under certain circumstances, it works how it works. There is no evidence that these rules are being rewritten on the fly, there is no evidence that there is some kind of supernatural force affecting the natural world, and there is no evidence that one can intrinsically manipulate this unevidenced supernatural force to rewrite the rules of the universe the way we want. Those of us with an interest in discovering the way the world truly works — so-named “rationalists” or “skeptics” — place the truth value of descriptive statements about the universe above all else. As such, it is fundamentally important to us to evaluate and rewrite our core epistemology when better evidence, better data, comes to light.

This does not appear to be the default case for the rest of humankind. Whether by environment or by genetics, the default mode is to accept pat answers that free up brain share for going about your daily life without having to worry about why we don’t fall up, why the sun shines, and why we even exist at all. We accept authority as pushed on us by our parents or spiritual leaders, and we learn that questioning these authorities is just a way of sowing doubt in your own mind. Once you start to doubt the “authorities”, you have to devote mental energies to determining the truth value of each of their statements thereafter. So, it’s far easier to simply accept the first-to-market idea that happens to catch your attention and provides a plausible-enough case for its truth value, than it is to actively research every claim that you come across.

It is this phenomenon against which skeptics fight. When someone makes the claim that quantum physics implies that one can modify reality in order to make it bend to your will, simply by “thinking happy” as in The Secret or through chakra manipulation, that has parsimony with pre-existing biases toward so-called magical thinking. It is therefore more likely to be accepted at face value by someone that believes there is a supernatural component to reality.

Compounding the situation we already have, wherein people make wholly unsubstantiated claims about reality, there is also a tendency for the news media to make wild leaps far beyond the probabilistic findings of real science. What is nominally a new, fuzzy bit of information that is interesting but means very little on its own, becomes “life on Mars” or “may some day cure cancer”. The news media appears to be invested in making each article about scientific progress stand on its own, and therefore strip every shred of context that might give you insight into the long chain of events that makes up science’s history. With each advance forced to stand on its own, the scientific method seems like divine inspiration when it is decidedly not. For instance, the theory of evolution stands not on a wholly unfounded “guess” by Darwin, but rather on the shoulders of every advance that came before it in geology, archaeology and biology. Over the 150 years that followed, every new line of evidence corroborated the hypothesis of common descent, including radiometric dating, and what could essentially be considered the ultimate creationist-killer field: genetics.

The evolution of the body of humankind’s scientific knowledge is as cumulative as the biological improvements over time in humankind, and the whole story deserves being told. Once people recognize that our current state of knowledge is predicated on every other advance that came before it, I suspect many of the abovementioned problems we face in adoption of the scientific worldview will pretty much evaporate.

The Skeptic’s Uphill Battle
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2 thoughts on “The Skeptic’s Uphill Battle

  1. 1

    Now Jason,
    We all know that radiometric dating and genetics were created as sort of scientific apologetics, designed to bolster the near dead Theory of Evolution. I could Carbon-14 date a fossil for you to prove it, but I don’t have the time. To genetics, we all share genetic commonality because we all have the same author…The Big G.
    What I’m getting at here is that for the very religious, there is a sort of argumentative projection, a feeling that religion needs to make shit up to bolster its argument therefor science must be doing the same thing. It’s a creationist meme that will likely not go away.
    My suggestion is that schools institute a more “first principles” approach to teaching science. My science class seemed to jump all over the spectrum in an attempt to touch upon every subject without enough background. This approach allows students to foster the belief that science is really just guesswork.

    Wouldn’t it be great to be in a class where the evidence is laid down by first principles and by the end most students already “knew” the conclusion?

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