A Mini-Course in Critical Thinking For Writers. Concept 1.10: Skepticism

I’ve decided to attempt the first draft of a college-level textbook, writing it directly into my blog, bit by bit. Feedback and recommendations in the thread comments are welcome, either encouraging or critical. The first chapter is a mini-course in critical thinking for writers. To have a look at Concepts 1.1 – 1.9, click here.

Concept 1.10. Skepticism. Skepticism (doubt), as a philosophical position, originated with the ancient Greeks. In its most extreme form, it entertains the idea that knowledge itself, on any matter whatsoever, is ultimately impossible–though this position has often been observed as self-refuting. If one were actually correct about this, how would one ever know?  Here, we will use the term in a looser, more contemporary sense: you are a skeptic if you regard doubt, not as a thing to be avoided, but as a virtue. Faith in some contexts may be a virtue–but so is doubt. So you’re a skeptic if you follow David Hume’s (1711-1776) advice, on encountering a claim, to apportion your belief or disbelief to the evidence. That is, you don’t believe or disbelieve claims with more confidence and enthusiasm than the evidence warrants; instead, you are rigorous and conscientious in being fair minded, measured in your opinions, and keeping doubt in play. This means you turn your skepticism, not just on the opinions of others and on opinions you don’t like, but on yourself and your own opinions as well. Contemporary skeptical behavior thus includes:

scrutiny of sentences as to their precision and coherence

appraising ad hoc explanations in light of Occam’s razor

using deduction, induction, abduction, reality testing (experience), and scientific method (experiment) to evaluate claims and their supports, attempting to get at the actual truth of matters as nearly as humanly possible

apportioning belief to the evidence

ironically noticing the relation of what we call facts to the values, metaphors, heuristics, and models we overlay upon them

self-criticism (turning the tools of critical thinking not just selectively outward, toward the claims of others, but toward oneself; toward one’s own beliefs)

no sacred cows (no claim is exempted from rational scrutiny)

Skeptics listen. Skeptics bring rigorous, hard questions to claims. And because skepticism is doubt, it can feel dangerous to people who have a claim that they want to believe. Doubt from outsiders can marshal a group’s defenses against loss and humiliation–as can doubt from insiders (whistle-blowers). Nobody likes to lose hope or lose face in argumentation. But skepticism needn’t be dehumanizing or socially corrosive. As a seeker of truth, the vulnerable skeptic, ideally, is not a sadist. Instead, he or she is more interested in dialogue than proclamation or deconstruction of others’ views. And again, ideally, the skeptic is most especially interested in civil dialogue between those who fundamentally disagree, calling to mind the philosopher Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677): “Non ridere, non lugere, neque detestari, sed intelligereNot to laugh, not to lament, not to curse, but to understand.

So a good skeptic is a good listener. For the skeptic, when it comes to getting at the truth of a matter, two heads are better than one, and two that disagree are better than two that agree. Skepticism is no skepticism that functions in an echo-chamber and goes all in one direction, circling the wagons with fellow skeptics, and never bringing skeptical questions back upon one’s own beliefs. So when you’re thinking closely about a claim someone is making, one way to get clarity is to keep an open mind, listen carefully, and maintain your humanity and the other person’s humanity squarely in the foreground of consciousness. Think of the person as a person, just as you are a person, and ask of them, with civility, the same sorts of tough, skeptical questions that you willingly and readily turn on your own beliefs. Be honest and kind.

Humility is also a virtue. It is good to recall that we are all subject to flawed reasoning, and any one of us may catastrophically misread the landscape we’re navigating, whether literal or metaphorical, causing us to arrive at false beliefs that end in our injury or death. We may also be thwarted in our purposes by setting them too high or low. Someone might outmaneuver us. We may make all the wrong allies—and find ourselves with all the wrong enemies. There are so many ways, and at so many levels, our critical thinking can fail, and it is in the knowledge of this that we question claims.

A list of questions to assist your critical inquiries. Below is a list of eighteen questions to help you navigate claims. The first nine address the claim itself; the subsequent nine address the claim’s adherents. Some might argue that to add skeptical consideration of the advocates of a claim to the analysis of a claim is not just to commit the ad hominem fallacy (“adding the man” to an argument), but to commit the genetic fallacy as well (substituting an analysis of the genealogy–the history–of how a claim came to exist for how the claim actually functions in argument). A claim, it is said, should stand or fall on it’s own argumentative merits, not on who says it or what its historical genealogy might be. Whether, for example, an atheist should eat meat is independent of the fact that Hitler was a vegetarian, and that the first vegetarians practiced vegetarianism for religious reasons. Vegetarianism can be evaluated independent of either its advocates or its history.

Strictly speaking, this is of course true. “Adding the man” or a genealogical history to a claim can distract critical focus. But once a claim has indeed been independently and fairly evaluated on its argumentative merits, skeptical questions surrounding believers in the claim and the historical context for the claim are often highly, highly revealing. They can function as a reminder of the many social factors that cause thought to go wrong–or right. For instance, thinking about how a particular community of scientists reached consensus on an issue like continental drift in geology can be suggestive of how to engage in critical thinking generally. It might serve as an exemplary model. The community may have been highly deliberative, not rushed; it may have regularly met to hash out objections, etc. In short, argument is not necessarily in a zero-sum game with considerations of the people and history behind a claim.

(1) Does the claim concern facts (what’s true), values (what’s good), or aesthetics (what’s beautiful), and is the claim meaningful (i.e., specific, coherent, and controversial enough to argue over)?

(2) Does the claim have any real evidence in support of it—and what is the quality of that evidence?

(3) Are there converging lines of evidence supporting this claim? (For example, one can be confident the Holocaust occurred via multiple, converging lines of evidence: photographic, testimonial, physical, documentary, and so on. How about this claim? Is this claim of the nature that it could also have converging lines of evidence in support of it–and if so, do these lines of evidence actually exist–and what is their quality?)

(4) Is the claim backed by authorities and experts? If so, how reliable are these?

(5) Independent of physical evidence and what authorities and experts might say about it, what other good reasons (valid arguments) are there for actually accepting the claim? Are there also good reasons not to accept it?

(6) Is this claim coherent with other things that are seemingly well-known and established (the things most reasonable people think they already know about human flourishing, what’s good and beautiful, what the universe is and how it works, etc.)? In other words, is there anything in this claim that seems to be incoherent or in tension with our other well-established pieces of background knowledge (evolution is true, penguins can’t fly, etc.)?

(7) What premises underlie this claim? Why do the argumentative supports for this claim start and stop where they do? Do the starting and stopping points seem reasonable–or are there questions that seem to go begging (that are in need of further argument)?

(8) A Goldilocks question: do the rules of thumb, mental models, maps, metaphors, and narratives that accompany this claim seem about right, too complicated, or too simplistic?

(9) What’s your dominant impression of the claim? In other words, given the cumulative quantity and quality of all the evidence and reasons that can be marshaled for this claim, how strongly should you actually accept or reject it? (Think grayscale here: on a scale of one to a hundred, how confident would you say you are, for example, that bacterial life exists on Mars? Or that banning all guns is a good thing? Or that Picasso was the greatest artist of the 20th century? Or that it would be good if 21st century humans stopped eating meat?

(10) Are there ways to reality test this claim? If so, do those who support the claim actively seek out disconfirming evidence and arguments for the claim–or are they largely just engaged in confirmation bias (counting the hits, but not the misses, in relation to the claim; not really looking for counter-arguments; walling the claim off from sustained scrutiny or possibilities for falsification; ad hoc-ing)? In other words, do the reasons believers put forward for the claim amount to after-the-fact rationalizations for the belief?

(11) Are those who accept this claim fairly judging and weighing the competing goods that may attend it? In other words, are they simply denying or ignoring what trade-offs might be at stake in adopting the claim, thereby oversimplifying matters? (Example: does an advocate for universal, free health care–a good thing–ignore or deny that low tax rates–also a good thing–might need to be raised to pay for it?)

(12) Did those who support this claim go through a process of abduction before fully embracing it? (Abduction entails dispassionately slowing down and weighing alternative beliefs or explanations before concluding that your position is the best belief or explanation on offer.) If abduction was not engaged in, then how, exactly, did those who accept the claim actually reach their professed level of confidence, intellectually? Was it, for instance, via emotions (as Robert Wright notes, “emotions are judgments”)? And if so, were these grounded in long experience and expertise, where an intuition or emotion might indeed function as a highly reliable judgment, the elimination of weaker hypotheses functioning unconsciously? Or was an emotional judgment rendered under pressures that might reduce its likelihood of being correct (emotional duress, intoxication, social conformity, time constraints, hope, fear, etc.)?

(13) What roles are group belonging, self-identity and esteem, financial interest, temperament, and desire—desire of any sort—playing in people’s adoption of this claim?

(14) How do those who accept the claim account for those who reject the claim? If there is a group that has formed around the claim, how do group members deal with outsiders and ambivalent insiders (fellow group members who express doubts, are insufficiently committed to the group, or perhaps even threaten to become whistle-blowers)?

(15) Does this claim seem to bring those who accept it under the spell of a metaphor, analogy, model, or narrative that appears to be dubious or in need of greater scrutiny? Are there other ways—better ways; simpler ways—to frame or tell the story of this claim that might break the spell of the claim on its adherents?

(16) Is there any indication that those who adhere to the claim on offer are dodging pointed and skeptical questions from outsiders? Is it the truth or something else that seems to be at stake among those who support the claim?

(17) Are those who accept this claim introducing any static into their arguments in support of it (emotional appeals, logical fallacies, the demonizing of outsiders, things that are beside the point, etc.)? If so, why are they doing this? What’s the signal in the noise here?

(18) Would you appraise the people who actually believe this claim as excessive in their belief, supporting the claim too confidently and enthusiastically, not in proportion to the evidence?

Again, the critical reasoner may bring skeptical questions, not just to claims, individuals, and the genealogy (history) of claims, but back upon oneself as well: what’s clouding my thought; what biases are at work in me? Skeptical questioning directed outward, but never back upon yourself, is not skepticism. Do you have the capacity, not just for bringing criticism to others, but for self-criticism–and the hearing of criticism? If so, then you’re probably closing in on what’s good, beautiful, and true–the truth of matters, and so moving very far across the bridge from the merely logically possible to what’s actually the case.

Writing 1.10.1. Evaluate a claim in the light of the eighteen criteria listed above. Reflect on your discoveries in a piece of writing. Read out your analysis to others and discuss it with them.

Writing 1.10.1. In your journal, reflect on your relationship to skepticism and doubt.

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About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
This entry was posted in atheism, atomism, critical thinking, david hume, education, edward feser, Lucretius, philosophy, reason, rhetoric, science, Uncategorized, writing. Bookmark the permalink.

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