Tag Archives: scientific skepticism

What is a fact?

by Tim Harding

This might seem like a simple question, but the answer is not so straightforward. The Macquarie Dictionary defines a fact as ‘what has really happened or is the case; truth; reality’. This implies that facts are objective, as opposed to opinions which are subjective. The distinction is important to scientific skepticism, which looks for objective evidence in support of dubious claims that are made.

The usual test for a statement of fact is verifiability; that is, whether it can be demonstrated to correspond to either empirical observation or deductive proof (such as 2+2=4). For instance, the proposition ‘It is raining’ describes the fact that it actually is raining.  The rain that falls can be objectively measured in a rain gauge – it is not just a matter of opinion.

On the other hand, an opinion is a judgement, viewpoint, or statement about matters commonly considered to be subjective, such as ‘It is raining too much’.  As Plato said: ‘opinion is the medium between knowledge and ignorance’.

Philosophers generally agree that facts are objective and verifiable. However, there are two main philosophical accounts of the epistemic status of facts. The first account is equivalent in meaning to the dictionary definition – a fact is that which makes a true proposition true. In other words, facts describe reality independently of propositions. This means that there can be unknown facts yet to be discovered by science or other investigations. But we cannot verify a fact unless we know about it. So the other account is that a fact is an item of knowledge – a proposition that is true and that we are justified in believing is true.  This means that we either have to accept that there can be unknown and unverifiable facts, or we must adopt the position that facts are things that we know.

References

Mulligan, Kevin and Correia, Fabrice, ‘Facts‘, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2017 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.)

Russell, Bertrand (1918) The Philosophy of Logical Atomism, Open Court, La Salle.

Russell, Bertrand (1950) An Inquiry Into Meaning and Truth, Allen & Unwin, London.

1 Comment

Filed under Essays and talks, Reblogs

Philosophy Denial: A Trap for the Unwary

by Dr. Patrick Stokes

“There is no new thing under the sun” complains ‘the Preacher,’ the great nihilist philosopher of ancient Israel. Certainly, philosophy-bashing is nothing new. The Athenians put Socrates to death, the Alexandrians murdered Hypatia, Jan Patočka died after a long interrogation by the Czech communist secret police. Thankfully in recent years philosophers have gotten off comparatively easily. The hemlock having been quietly shelved, these days we philosophers mostly just have to put up with rockstar astrophysicists (to date: Hawking, Krauss, deGrasse Tyson) and the odd thinkpiece declaring philosophy obsolete, unproductive, or simply ‘dead.’

What’s interesting about these critiques is that they all end up falling obliviously into exactly the same trap. All end up trying to philosophize their way out of doing philosophy, like a drowning person trying to drink his way out of the water. Gary Bakker’s recent article on these pages is a splendidly illustrative example of this genre.

A standard complaint in the anti-philosophy literature is that science progresses and philosophy does not. This complaint takes at least two different forms, both of which are present in Bakker’s piece. The first is that philosophy is simply made redundant by advances in other fields, principally the natural sciences. If physics can tell us why there’s something rather than nothing, so the thinking goes, who cares what Spinoza had to say on the same topic? Why should we care about philosophers’ definitions of ‘nothing,’ ‘cause’ or ‘substance’ when the definitions that scientists use get the job done perfectly well?

To call philosophy an ‘alternative methodology’ to science, as Bakker does, misses the point if it assumes they each apply to the same type of proposition, as if science and philosophy take themselves to be two different ways of testing claims like ‘water boils at 100 degrees celcius at sea level’ and ‘no two numerically distinct entities can share all their properties.’

Bakker’s in fairly esteemed company in buying into this confusion: Stephen Hawking’s claim that physics has superseded philosophy rests on the same mistaken assumption that physics and philosophy were simply alternative, competing methodologies for producing the same type of knowledge about the same thing, both chasing the same goal, and physics won.

You can’t test the boiling point of water philosophically, and you’d be a fool to try. But equally, Leibniz’ principle of the identity of indiscernibles is not an empirical proposition. You won’t determine whether it’s true or not by observation or experiment. Neither are the propositions of logic, or ethics, or aesthetics, or even epistemology. Yet that does not excuse us from having to answer logical, ethical, aesthetic, or epistemic questions.

The second complaint is the even more sweeping one that philosophy doesn’t answer any serious questions we might have. Of course philosophy offers answers to questions all the time; the complaint is, rather, that they don’t stay answered. Bakker argues that my erstwhile Stop the AVN comrade Peter Bowditch, in defending the value of philosophy, fails to provide a single “scrap of empirical evidence – just one example of a problem it had solved.”

But that’s already to invoke a standard of success (empirical evidence) and with it a criterion for measuring philosophy against that standard (the solving of problems) that are not only tendentious in themselves – why would we assume logical, metaphysical, epistemological or ethical problems are solvable in the same way as empirical questions? – they’re a standard and a criterion that could only be defended philosophically.

For a great many of philosophy’s critics, particularly those given to the more naïve forms of scientism, this is a curious and persistent blind spot. They quite rightly defend the scientific method as a knowledge-generating mechanism so unprecedentedly successful that it overrules any and all competing methods – and in a world full of pseudoscience and associated nonsense it’s a very good thing that they do!

But you cannot use the scientific method to investigate the efficacy of the scientific method itself without falling into obvious circularity. Bakker – like a great many philosophers of science before him – appeals here to the fact that science works as a justification for taking the deliverances of the scientific method as being true. I’ve certainly no objection to that. The problem is that ‘what is true is what works’ is not a scientific proposition. It’s a philosophical one, with roots going back to pragmatist philosophers like Charles Peirce and William James.

Like many philosophy denialists, Bakker simply fails to notice that his own position, in this case a position he calls ‘empiricism,’ is itself a philosophical position, and as such can only be evaluated and defended philosophically. In fact, Bakker’s view, as he acknowledges, is really a pragmatist rather than an empiricist one: his “what works, works” is a long way from the sort of scientific realism we usually associate with what he calls ‘Rationalism.’ (It’s also very odd he thinks ‘postmodernists’ – insofar as that’s a descriptively useful term, which it mostly isn’t – dislike pragmatism. Rorty would be spinning in his grave).

That doesn’t mean this ‘Rationalist’ position is wrong. But it’s not, as many philosophically naive commentators seem to assume, simply and obviously right either. Any half-decent epistemologist with an afternoon to kill could drive a truck through any single element of the truth-standard Bakker endorses: “reliable, reproducible, consensual, evidence-based, applicable knowledge.” Can such a standard be defended? Absolutely! How would you do so? There’s only one way, and it rhymes (sort of) with ‘apostrophe.’

Of course, uninterrogated standards, concepts, and assumptions aren’t always a problem. Most of the time scientists simply don’t need to worry about questions of epistemology or metaphysics. They can do science perfectly well without them, and get further that way than if they had to constantly re-litigate questions about the epistemic and ontological basis of what they do. But questions don’t cease to be questions – even important questions – just because we’ve decided to set them aside within a given domain and for a specific purpose. And even the question of which questions are worth pursuing, being a question about value, is ultimately a philosophical one.

Even Bakker’s claim that “all meaningful philosophical problems are actually scientific problems,” quite apart from being false, is itself a philosophical proposition. Perhaps Bakker might have known that had he looked beyond the dictionary definition of positivism to learn why positivism failed in the specific ways it did. If he knew that history, he might have recognized his claim that “we have misused words to ask and answer questions that weren’t there in the first place” comes straight from Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations: “philosophical problems arise when language goes on holiday.”

Wittgenstein thought the purpose of philosophy is to dissolve such pseudo-problems, to “show the fly the way out of the fly bottle.” Yet as philosophy denialists show time and time again, philosophy is a snare that only gets tighter the more you try to struggle out of it. In claiming science displaces philosophy, Bakker is in fact doing philosophy, not science. In appealing to standards of evidence against which we could judge philosophy, he’s still doing philosophy. In appealing to a (naturalistic?) standard of ‘what works’ in ethics and law he’s absolutely doing philosophy – and falling into a category mistake by trying to smuggle normativity back into a picture he insists is all ‘is’ and no ‘ought.’

That’s the really irritating thing about philosophy: not that the perplexity never ends, but that in the end philosophy itself is simply inescapable. It’s what Bakker’s doing, it’s what I’m doing right now, and it’s what you’re doing right now in assessing these competing arguments. You can do it well, or do it badly; that’s all. And in that sense, we’re indebted to Bakker for unwittingly demonstrating, yet again, the value of philosophy.

Patrick Stokes is senior lecturer in philosophy at Deakin University and a member of Stop the AVN. His most recent book is ‘The Naked Self: Kierkegaard and Personal Identity’ (Oxford, 2015). Reblogged with permission of the author. 

3 Comments

Filed under Reblogs

How to startup and run a local skeptics group

by Tim Harding

(An edited version of this article was published in The Skeptic magazine,
December 2017, Vol 37 No 4)

This article about local skeptics groups is intended to complement those elsewhere in this issue of the magazine by Eran Segev and Tim Mendham.  After having been a co-organiser for nearly seven years of the successful Mordi Skeptics in the Pub, I would now like to pass on 10 tips for people thinking of starting up a local skeptics group in their area.

As Tim Mendham writes, the Skeptics in the Pub (SitP) movement has been quite successful with over 100 groups worldwide, including 11 (now 17) in Australia.  The Mordi SitP now has over 700 members, although probably only around 10% of these come to the meetups (the rest are social media members).  I think the key to this success is the idea of meeting in a social setting over a few drinks and the possibility of dinner as well. This can help overcome the usual objections to boring meetings that we get enough of in our day jobs.

Tim Harding introducing visiting US speaker Susan Gerbic
to the Mordi Skeptics, 2015

  1. Choose your venue

The obvious first requirement is the availability of reasonably priced drinks and meals.  Next is adequate parking and close proximity to public transport.  Although most groups start off meeting in a public lounge area, it’s best to choose a venue that has private rooms, if and when you want to have guest speakers later on.

  1. Choose a local name for your group

There are three main advantages to having an identifiable local geographical name for you group, such as your local town or suburb. First, it helps potential members know where you are.  Second, the venue you choose is likely to be impressed by your local name. Third, local MPs are more likely to take you seriously if you want to lobby them about some skeptical issue.  (Don’t name your group after the venue, because you might need to change venues and keep your name).

  1. Promote your group via social media

Once you have your venue and group name, the next step is to announce your existence via social media. At Mordi Skeptics, we found the Meetup web site (www.meetup.com) very useful, both in attracting members and in operating the group. The Meetup web site enables you to effectively operate the group online, without any need for those tedious organisers’ meetings that put busy people off.  But Meetup.com costs money to use, for which collecting a couple of dollars from each meetup attendee should be adequate.  Establishing a Facebook page and a Twitter handle is also a good idea, and doesn’t cost anything.

  1. Select a small number of organisers

SitP groups are best run informally, with a small number of organisers – at least 3 and no more than 5.  Organisers should be selected by invitation rather than elected at a meetup. Elections require constitutions and other time-consuming formalities you will want to avoid.  There should be no need for an informal local group to incorporate, which would require an AGM and lots of tedious paperwork. Also, you are bound to find a few anti-skeptics in the audience, who would relish an opportunity to put their hand up and sabotage your group.

Work out what tasks are needed to run the group effectively, divide these tasks up between the organisers and let them get on with it.  Such tasks include speaker wrangling, social media webmastering and liaising with the venue management.

  1. Develop a good relationship with the venue management

One of the most important tasks is to develop a good working relationship with venue staff member responsible for table and room bookings.  This task should be allocated to one of your organisers who should initially meet this staff member personally (rather than just talk over the phone) and get familiar on first name terms.  Explain what the group is on about, and how you would like to co-operate with the venue to your mutual benefit. Ask them how many members on average would need to dine and attend meetups for the venue to allocate you a private room for free on a regular basis.  (The cost of hiring a room will probably be prohibitive). The minimum number will probably be in the order of 10 for dining and 20 for attending the meeting (at which members are expected to buy a drink – even just tea or coffee).

If the venue is not prepared to give you a private room for free, you might need to look elsewhere if you want have guest speakers. Let the venue know how many members you are expecting at each meetup and the timings (including a mid-presentation drinks break) to assist them in room allocation and staffing plans.

  1. Consider your audience

We found that there were three categories of people who attended our SitP meetups.  First, there are the committed skeptics who want to advance the cause. These are likely to be in a minority, at least initially.  Second, there are people who would like to have interesting discussions in a social setting. Third, there are people who would like to meet like-minded people with a view to possible friendship or even ‘romance’ (these people are usually more interested in the dinners than the presentations).  You need to try and cater for all three categories of people, although the skeptical cause must remain paramount.  After all, you don’t want your SitP group to be just a lonely hearts club.

  1. Have clear aims and stick to them

The organisers should develop a simple and clear set of aims or purpose, and publicise these via social media.  Allow comments on these aims via social media, but don’t allow them to be debated at the actual meetups.  Otherwise you run the risk of your group being derailed by anti-skeptics.

One thing I would recommend is keeping scientific skepticism as your central focus.  For example, you will find that some people confuse skepticism with atheism, with denialism or even conspiracy theories.  In particular, just as not all skeptics are atheists, even less atheists are skeptics. Both groups are more likely to flourish by being kept separate. It’s not as if people can’t join more than one type of group.

On the other hand, don’t let your scope get too narrow. The traditional skeptical topics of paranormality, quackery and pseudoscience can be become a bit boring after a while. Any topic that promotes rationality and demotes irrationality is possibly suitable.  We usually found that talks about real science were the most popular.

  1. Select speakers carefully

Obviously you need to select speakers consistent with your aims or purposes.  Ask for recommendations from other skeptics groups.  Always have one or two backup speakers in case your scheduled speaker becomes ill on the day, or has some other unforeseen and unavoidable reason for not being able to speak.  Your own members would be the most reliable source of such backup speakers.

  1. Network with other skeptics groups

There are obvious mutual advantages in networking with the big skeptics groups such as Australian Skeptics Inc. based in NSW and the Australian Skeptics (Victorian Branch).  These state-based groups have significant resources, experience and expertise.  Amongst other things, it is worthwhile applying to them for not only guest speakers but possible grants or loans for such vital resources as a video projector.  You should also network with other local skeptics groups in your state, by attending their meetups and inviting their members as guest speakers.

  1. Have fun

Above all, SitP meetups should be enjoyable – they should aim to provide leisure-time pleasure rather than be some sort of obligatory burden.  If the latter, people will eventually become tired or bored and stop coming.  In my view, the growth of local skeptics groups is the future key to expanding the worldwide skeptical movement.

Tim Harding is a former co-organiser of the Mordi Skeptics in the Pub group, in a southern suburb of Melbourne.

References

Mendham, Tim, ‘Pint-Sized Fun’, The Skeptic, December 2017, Vol 37 No 4. pp.22-23.

Segev, Eran, ‘Group Thinking’ The Skeptic, December 2017, Vol 37 No 4. pp.26-29.

Leave a comment

Filed under Essays and talks

Skepticism – philosophical or scientific?

by Tim Harding B.Sc., B.A.

(This essay is based on a talk presented to the Victorian Skeptics in January 2017. An edited version was published in The Skeptic magazine Vol.37, No.1, March 2017, under the title ‘I Think I Am’).

Dictionaries often draw a distinction between the modern common meaning of skepticism, and its traditional philosophical meaning, which dates from antiquity.  The usual common dictionary definition is ‘a sceptical attitude; doubt as to the truth of something’; whereas the philosophical definition is ‘the theory that some or all types of knowledge are impossible’.  These definitions are of course quite different, and reflect the fact that the meanings of philosophical terms have drifted over the millennia.  The contemporary meaning of ‘scientific skepticism’ is different again, which I shall talk about later.

I should say at the outset that whilst I have a foot in both the scientific and philosophical camps, and although I will be writing here mainly about the less familiar philosophical skepticism, I personally support scientific skepticism over philosophical skepticism, for reasons I shall later explain.

picture5

But why are these definitions of skepticism important? And why do we spell it with a ‘k’ instead of a ‘c’? As an admin of a large online skeptics group (Skeptics in Australia), I am often asked such questions, so I have done a bit of investigating.

As to the first question, one of the main definitional issues I have faced is the difference between skepticism and what I call denialism. Some skeptical newbies typically do a limited amount of googling, and what they often come up with is the common dictionary definition of skepticism, rather than the lesser known scientific skepticism definition that we Australian skeptics use.  They tend to think that ‘scepticism’ (with a ‘c’) entails doubting or being skeptical of everything, including science, medicine, vaccination, biotechnology, moon landings, 9/11 etc, etc.  When we scientific skeptics express a contrary view, we are sometimes then accused of ‘not being real sceptics’.  So I think that definitions are important.

In my view, denialism is a person’s choice to deny certain particular facts.  It is an essentially irrational belief where the person substitutes his or her personal opinion for established knowledge.  Science denialism is the rejection of basic facts and concepts that are undisputed, well-supported parts of the scientific consensus on a subject, in favour of radical and controversial opinions of an unscientific nature.  Most real skeptics accept the findings of peer-reviewed science published in reputable scientific journals, at least for the time being, unless and until it is corrected by the scientific community.

Denialism can then give rise to conspiracy theories, as a way of trying to explain the discrepancy between scientific facts and personal opinions.  Here is the typical form of what I call the Scientific Conspiracy Fallacy:

Premise 1: I hold a certain belief.

Premise 2: The scientific evidence is inconsistent with my belief.

Conclusion: Therefore, the scientists are conspiring with the Big Bad Government/CIA/NASA/Big Pharma (choose whichever is convenient) to fake the evidence and undermine my belief.

It is a tall order to argue that the whole of science is genuinely mistaken. That is a debate that even the conspiracy theorists know they probably can’t win. So the most convenient explanation for the inconsistency is that scientists are engaged in a conspiracy to fake the evidence in specific cases.

Ancient Greek Skepticism

The word ‘skeptic’ originates from the early Greek skeptikos, meaning ‘inquiring, reflective’.

The Hellenistic period covers the period of Greek and Mediterranean history between the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BCE and the Roman victory over Greeks at the Battle of Corinth in 146 BCE.  The beginning of this period also coincides with the death of the great philosopher, logician and scientist Aristotle of Stagira (384–322 BCE).

As he had no adult heir, Alexander’s empire was divided between the families of three of his generals.  This resulted in political conflicts and civil wars, in which prominent philosophers and other intellectuals did not want to take sides, in the interests of self-preservation.  So they retreated from public life into various cloistered schools of philosophy, the main ones being the Stoics, the Epicureans, the Cynics and the Skeptics.

As I mentioned earlier, the meanings of such philosophical terms have altered over 2000 years.  These philosophical schools had different theories as to how to attain eudaimonia, which roughly translates as the highest human good, or the fulfilment of human life.  They thought that the key to eudaimonia was to live in accordance with Nature, but they had different views as to how to achieve this.

In a nutshell, the Stoics advocated the development of self-control and fortitude as a means of overcoming destructive emotions.  The Epicureans regarded absence of pain and suffering as the source of happiness (not just hedonistic pleasure).   The Cynics (which means ‘dog like’) rejected conventional desires for wealth, power, health, or fame, and lived a simple life free from possessions.  Lastly, there were the Skeptics, whom I will now discuss in more detail.

During this Hellenistic period, there were actually two philosophical varieties of skepticism – the Academic Skeptics and the Pyrrhonist Skeptics.

In 266BCE, Arcesilaus became head of Platonic Academy.  The Academic Skeptics did not doubt the existence of truth in itself, only our capacities for obtaining it.  They went as far as thinking that knowledge is impossible – nothing can be known at all.  A later head of the Academy, Carneades modified this rather extreme position into thinking that ideas or notions are never true, but only probable.   He thought there are degrees of probability, hence degrees of belief, leading to degrees of justification for action.  Academic Skepticism did not really catch on, and largely died out in the first century CE, with isolated attempts at revival from time to time.

picture2

The founder of Pyrrhonist Skepticism, Pyrrho of Elis (c.365-c.275BCE) was born in Elis on west side of the Peloponnesian Peninsula (near Olympia).  Pyrrho travelled with Alexander the Great on his exploration of the East.  He encountered the Magi in Persia and even went as far as the Gymnosophists in India, who were naked ascetic gurus –  not exactly a good image for modern skepticism.

picture3

Pyrrho differed from the Academic Skeptics in thinking nothing can be known for certain.  He thought that their position ‘nothing can be known at all’ was dogmatic and self-contradictory, because it itself is a claim of certainty.  Pyrrho thought that the senses are easily fooled, and reason follows too easily our desires.  Therefore we should withhold assent from non-evident propositions and remain in a state of perpetual inquiry about them.  This means that we are not necessarily skeptical of ‘evident propositions’, and that at least some knowledge is possible.  This position is closer to modern skepticism than Academic Skepticism.  Indeed, Pyrrhonism became a synonym for skepticism in the 17th century CE; but we are not quite there yet.

Sextus Empiricus (c. 160 – c. 210 CE) was a Greco-Roman philosopher who promoted Pyrrhonian skepticism.  It is thought that the word ‘empirical’ comes from his name; although the Greek word empeiria also means ‘experience’.  Sextus Empiricus first questioned the validity of inductive reasoning, positing that a universal rule could not be established from an incomplete set of particular instances, thus presaging David Hume’s ‘problem of induction’ about 1500 years later.

Skeptic with a ‘k’

The Romans were great inventors and engineers, but they are not renowned for science or skepticism.  On the contrary, they are better known for being superstitious; for instance, the Roman Senate sat only on ‘auspicious days’ thought to be favoured by the gods.  They had lots of pseudoscientific beliefs that we skeptics would now regard as quackery or woo.  For example, they thought that cabbage was a cure for many illnesses; and in around 78CE, the Roman author Pliny the Elder wrote: ‘I find that a bad cold in the head clears up if the sufferer kisses a mule on the nose’.

So I cannot see any valid historical reason for us to switch from the early Greek spelling of ‘skeptic’ to the Romanised ‘sceptic’.  Yes, I know that ‘skeptic’ is the American spelling and ‘sceptic’ is the British spelling, but I don’t think that alters anything.  The most likely explanation is that the Americans adopted the spelling of the early Greeks and the British adopted that of the Romans.

picture1

Modern philosophical skepticism

Somewhat counter intuitively, the term ‘modern philosophy’ is used to distinguish more recent philosophy from the ancient philosophy of the early Greeks and the medieval philosophy of the Christian scholastics.  Thus ‘modern philosophy’ dates from the Renaissance of the 14th to the 17th centuries, although precisely when modern philosophy started within the Renaissance period is a matter of some scholarly dispute.

The defining feature of modern philosophical skepticism is the questioning the validity of some or all types of knowledge.  So before going any further, we need to define knowledge.

The branch of philosophy dealing with the study of knowledge is called ‘epistemology’.  The ancient philosopher Plato famously defined knowledge as ‘justified true belief’, as illustrated by the Venn diagram below.  According to this definition, it is not sufficient that a belief is true to qualify as knowledge – a belief based on faith or even just a guess could happen to be true by mere coincidence.  So we need adequate justification of the truth of the belief for it to become knowledge.  Although there are a few exceptions, known as ‘Gettier problems’, this definition of knowledge is still largely accepted by modern philosophers, and will do for our purposes here.  (Epistemology is mainly about the justification of true beliefs rather than this basic definition of knowledge).

picture4

There are also different types of knowledge that are relevant to this discussion.

A priori knowledge is knowledge that is known independently of experience.  For instance, we know that ‘all crows are birds’ without having to conduct an empirical survey of crows to investigate how many are birds and whether there are any crows that are not birds.  Crows are birds by definition – it is just impossible for there to be an animal that is a crow but is not a bird.

On the other hand, a posteriori knowledge is knowledge that is known by experience.  For instance, we only know that ‘all crows are black’ from empirical observations of crows.  It is not impossible that there is a crow that is not black, for example as a result of some genetic mutation.

The above distinction illustrates how not all knowledge needs to be empirical.  Indeed, one of the earliest modern philosophers and skeptics, Rene Descartes (1596-1650) was a French mathematician, scientist and philosopher.  (His name is where the mathematical word ‘Cartesian’ comes from).  These three interests of his were interrelated, in the sense that he had a mathematical and scientific approach to his philosophy.  Mathematics ‘delighted him because of its certainty and clarity’.  His fundamental aim was to attain philosophical truth by the use of reason and logical methods alone.  For him, the only kind of knowledge was that of which he could be certain.  His ideal of philosophy was to discover hitherto uncertain truths implied by more fundamental certain truths, in a similar manner to mathematical proofs.

Using this approach, Descartes engaged in a series of meditations to find a foundational truth of which he could be certain, and then to build on that foundation a body of implied knowledge of which he could also be certain.  He did this in a methodical way by first withholding assent from opinions which are not completely certain, that is, where there is at least some reason for doubt, such as those acquired from the senses.  Descartes concludes that one proposition of which he can be certain is ‘Cogito, ergo sum’ (which means ‘I think, therefore I exist’).

In contrast to Descartes, a different type of philosophical skeptic David Hume (1711-1776) held all human knowledge is ultimately founded solely in ‘experience’.  In what has become known as ‘Hume’s fork’, he held that statements are divided up into two types: statements about ideas are necessary statements that are knowable a priori; and statements about the world, which are contingent and knowable a posteriori.

In modern philosophical terminology, members of the first group are known as analytic propositions and members of the latter as synthetic propositions.  Into the first class fall statements such as ‘2 + 2 = 4’, ‘all bachelors are unmarried’, and truths of mathematics and logic. Into the second class fall statements like ‘the sun rises in the morning’, and ‘the Earth has precisely one moon’.

Hume tried to prove that certainty does not exist in science. First, Hume notes that statements of the second type can never be entirely certain, due to the fallibility of our senses, the possibility of deception (for example, the modern ‘brain in a vat’ hypothesis) and other arguments made by philosophical skeptics.  It is always logically possible that any given statement about the world is false – hence the need for doubt and skepticism.

Hume formulated the ‘problem of induction’, which is the skeptical question of whether inductive reasoning leads to knowledge understood in the classic philosophical sense.  This problem focuses on the alleged lack of justification for generalising about the properties of a class of objects based on some number of observations of particular instances of that class (for example, the inference that ‘all swans we have seen are white, and therefore, all swans are white’, before the discovery of black swans in Western Australia).

Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) was (and still is) a major philosophical figure who tried to show the way beyond the impasse which modern philosophy had led to between rationalists such as Descartes and empiricists such as Hume.  Kant is widely held to have synthesised these two early modern philosophical traditions.  And yet he was also a skeptic, albeit of a different variety.  Kant thought that only knowledge gained from empirical science is legitimate, which is a forerunner of modern scientific skepticism.  He thought that metaphysics was illegitimate and largely speculative; and in that sense he was a philosophical skeptic.

Scientific skepticism

In 1924, the Spanish philosopher Miguel de Unamuno disputed the common dictionary definition of skepticism.  He argued that ‘skeptic does not mean him who doubts, but him who investigates or researches as opposed to him who asserts and thinks that he has found’.  Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

Modern scientific skepticism is different from philosophical skepticism, and yet to some extent was influenced by the ideas of Pyrrho of Elis, David Hume, Immanuel Kant and Miguel de Unamuno.

Most skeptics in the English-speaking world see the 1976 formation of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP) in the United States as the ‘birth of modern skepticism’.  (CSICOP is now called the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry – CSI).  However, CSICOP founder and philosophy professor Paul Kurtz has said that he actually modelled it after the Belgian Comité Para of 1949.  The Comité Para was partly formed as a response to a predatory industry of bogus psychics who were exploiting the grieving relatives of people who had gone missing during the Second World War.

paul-kurtz

Kurtz recommended that CSICOP focus on testable paranormal and pseudoscientific claims and to leave religious aspects to others.  CSICOP popularised the usage of the terms ‘skeptic’, ‘skeptical’ and ‘skepticism’ by its magazine, Skeptical Inquirer, and directly inspired the foundation of many other skeptical organizations throughout the world, including the Australian Skeptics in 1980.

Through the public activism of groups such as CSICOP and the Australian Skeptics, the term ‘scientific skepticism’ has come to symbolise an activist movement as well as a type of applied philosophy.

There are several definitions of scientific skepticism, but the two that I think are most apt are those by the Canadian skeptic Daniel Loxton and the American skeptic Steven Novella.

Daniel Loxton’s definition is ‘the practice or project of studying paranormal and pseudoscientific claims through the lens of science and critical scholarship, and then sharing the results with the public.’

Steven Novella’s definition is ‘scientific skepticism is the application of skeptical philosophy, critical thinking skills, and knowledge of science and its methods to empirical claims, while remaining agnostic or neutral to non-empirical claims (except those that directly impact the practice of science).’  By this exception, I think he means religious beliefs that conflict with science, such as creationism or opposition to stem cell research.

In other words, scientific skeptics maintain that empirical investigation of reality leads to the truth, and that the scientific method is best suited to this purpose. Scientific skeptics attempt to evaluate claims based on verifiability and falsifiability and discourage accepting claims on faith or anecdotal evidence.  This is different to philosophical skepticism, although inspired by it.

References

Descartes, R. (1641) Meditations on First Philosophy: With Selections from the Objections and Replies, trans. and ed. John Cottingham, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Hume, David.(1748) An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding . Gutenberg Press.

Kant, Immanuel (1787) Critique of Pure Reason 2nd edition.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Loxton, Daniel. (2013) Why Is There a Skeptical Movement? (PDF). Retrieved 12 January 2017.

Novella, Steven (15 February 2013). ‘Scientific Skepticism, Rationalism, and Secularism’. Neurologica (blog). Retrieved 12 February 2017.

Russell, Bertrand. (1961) History of Western Philosophy. 2nd edition London: George Allen & Unwin.

Unamuno, Miguel de., (1924) Essays and soliloquies London: Harrap.

If you find the information on this blog useful, you might like to consider supporting us.

Make a Donation Button

1 Comment

Filed under Essays and talks

Mobile phone health alarmists bereft of credible arguments

The Conversation
Simon Chapman, University of Sydney

In May this year, I led a paper published in Cancer Epidemiology, which looked at the incidence of brain cancer in Australia between 1982 and 2012.

The first mobile phone call was made in Australia in 1987 and today their use is all but universal.

Cancer is a notifiable disease: all newly diagnosed cases are gathered from doctors by state cancer registries and nationally aggregated by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare in publicly available data.

I summarised our study in this column, which to date has had more than 44,700 readers.


New study: no increase in brain cancer across 29 years of mobile use in Australia


We found that with extremely high proportions of the population having used mobile phones across some 20-plus years (from about 9% in 1993 to about 90% today), age-adjusted brain cancer rates have flatlined over nearly 30 years.

There were significant increases in brain cancer incidence only in those aged 70 years or more. But the increase in this age group began from 1982, before the introduction of mobile phones in 1987 and so cannot be explained by it.

The most likely explanation of the rise in this older age group was improved diagnosis that happened with the introduction of imaging machines that (for example) could more accurately diagnose some strokes as brain cancers.

In the days and weeks after publication, our paper received massive global news and social media attention, achieving an Altmetric score of 835. On the basis of the most media-covered research in all fields in 2015, this would have put it just outside the 100 highest Altmetric scores if we’d published it last year (2016 figures are published early next year).

It also drew the ire of the close-knit international network of mobile phone and wifi alarmists, who are utterly convinced mobile phones are deadly and won’t hear otherwise. Their opening salvo was to accuse me of being an undeclared phone industry stooge.

In 1997 I had been given a small grant by AMTA, the Australian Mobile Telephone Association, to conduct a national survey of how many mobile phone users had ever used their phone to call emergency services such as ambulance, police and fire. Large proportions of people had done so, probably saving many lives by alerting these services far more quickly than when having to find a landline.

I didn’t report this because I got the one-off grant 19 years ago, and all reputable journals and research agencies rule that competing interests are not lifetime but extinguish typically between one and three years after such support has expired. The grant also had nothing to do with cancer.

I also got a series of mostly verbally incontinent email. One from an excitable correspondent in Swaziland, insisted that I answer his many eureka moment insights into why what we had published was wrong in every respect. We should withdraw our paper, he demanded and tell the world we were wrong.

Predictably, several wrote to Cancer Epidemiology, setting out a litany of our egregious errors and failures to understand that an epidemic of brain cancer, comparable to the deluge of smoking-caused cancers, was just around the corner. Three of these were published this week with our response (open access until October 20, 2016).

The three letters were written by five individuals, three of whom are affiliated with a non-accredited Environmental Health Trust, headed by Dr Devra Davis, the alarmist doomsayer who featured in the much-criticised ABC Catalyst program which has now been withdrawn.

Assuming they got their heads together to rain blows on our heretical findings, it was amusing to see the barely audible blanks they decided to fire.

Their main arguments were:

‘It’s too soon to see an epidemic of brain cancer’

One argued several decades of widespread phone use were needed before increases in cancer might be seen. She seemed intent on diminishing the number of years that large numbers of Australians have used mobile phones, in order to preserve her argument. She argued that only the last nine years of data since 2001 when mobile subscriptions reached 50% of the population ought to be considered in any analysis. And nine years was not nearly enough.

But by 1996, some 20% of Australian adults (some 2.9 million) were using mobile phones. Apparently we ought to have joined her in seeing this as a trivial exposed population, unworthy of consideration. Quite obviously, there’s no alleged carcinogen where 20% of the population is exposed where any credible scientist would seriously maintain such widespread exposure should be ignored in assessing population attributable risk.

Further, in one of the studies cited in a review published by our critics, excess risks of brain cancer from mobile phone use are argued as occurring following exposures of as little as between five and ten years of mobile phone use. These critics even suggested in the same paper that the international INTERPHONE study may suggest a cancer “promotion effect”, with use as few as one to four years being dangerous.

We concluded that:

This therefore looks like an argument trying to walk on both sides of the street: if a short latency period show excess risks they are deemed to be credible, while if they show no excess (as with our study) they are to be dismissed.

‘Various case-control studies show evidence of increased risk’

Case-control studies in this field have been criticised because they rely on users’ recall of the extent of phone use going back many years. Just try recall your own mobile phone use in, for example, 2003 and you will immediately understand how data obtained this way are hugely problematic.

Moreover, people with brain cancer often have memory loss. And if you have brain cancer, are part of a study considering its cause, and have been exposed to frequent claims about the hypothesis that mobile phone use causing brain cancer, the likelihood of recall bias resulting in recall of high mobile phone use is probably going to increase.

The strength of our study was the ability to look at all cases of brain cancer in Australia in the 29 years since the first call was made here. The inconvenient fact for the alarmists is that there has been no significant increase in brain cancer in either men or women compatible with the mobile phone hypothesis.

‘Decreased use of X-rays is masking an increase in cancers caused by mobiles’

Perhaps the silliest argument thrown at us was an unreferenced hypothesis that “discontinued or reduced use of established carcinogens such as X-rays” may have reduced the incidence of brain cancer from such exposures while, simultaneously, the rise of mobile phone use would have replaced those cases, thereby explaining the largely flat line incidence across our data period.

This hypothesis would need to account for how reductions in a very uncommon radiation exposure (full head X-rays) could ever possibly produce the exact same decreased incidence of brain cancer that they claim arise in daily exposure to an alleged carcinogen by most of the entire population would add to that incidence.

Our Swaziland critic finished one of his missives writing that “it behooves you, as a scientist, to take note of fatal errors in your work.” It would “behoove” mobile phone alarmists to stop unnecessarily alarming people with their weak arguments.

The ConversationSimon Chapman, Emeritus Professor in Public Health, University of Sydney

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.
 

Leave a comment

Filed under Reblogs

Sam Harris on Charlie Hebdo

Sam Harris (born April 9, 1967) is an American author, philosopher, and neuroscientist. He is the co-founder and chief executive of Project Reason. He is the author of The End of Faith, which was published in 2004 and appeared on The New York Times Best Seller list for 33 weeks. The book also won the PEN/Martha Albrand Award for First Nonfiction in 2005.  In 2006, Harris published the book Letter to a Christian Nation as a response to criticism of The End of Faith. This work was followed by The Moral Landscape, published in 2010, his long-form essay Lying in 2011, the short book Free Will in 2012, and Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion in 2014.

Harris is a contemporary critic of religion and proponent of scientific skepticism and the “New Atheism“. He is also an advocate for the separation of church and state, freedom of religion, and the liberty to criticize religion. Harris has written numerous articles for The Huffington Post, Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, The New York Times, Newsweek, and the journal Nature. His articles touch upon a diversity of topics including religion, morality, neuroscience, free will, terrorism, and self-defense.

Leave a comment

Filed under Videos