Why scepticism is still ‘the highest of duties’

Scepticism is widely denounced as a poison and a disease today, just as it was in the Dark Ages. We urgently need to rescue its reputation.

Frank Furedi

Frank Furedi

Topics Science & Tech

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Over Easter, the official Greenpeace website carried a blog written by Gene Hashmi, communications director of its affiliate in India. Hashmi launched an attack on sceptics, whom he accused of fuelling ‘spurious debates around false solutions’, and concluded with the not-too-subtle threat: ‘We know who you are. We know where you live. We know where you work. And we be many but you be few.’

Welcome to a world where the term ‘sceptic’ has acquired the kind of meaning usually associated with Dark Age heresy.

Fearing a backlash against a statement which most normal readers would interpret as an incitement to violence, Greenpeace pulled the blog from its site. It defensively justified its act of self-censorship on the grounds that it was ‘easy to misconstrue’ Hashmi’s statement.

However, the use of highly charged, intemperate rhetoric has become the hallmark of the present-day crusade against scepticism. Some contend that the arguments of climate-change sceptics bear an uncanny resemblance to the statements made by pro-slavery reactionaries in the nineteenth century and by Holocaust deniers. More imaginative environmental activists have proposed establishing Nuremberg-style trials for climate-change sceptics.

It is truly astonishing that in an era that claims to uphold the pursuit of knowledge, freedom of speech and scientific inquiry, the term ‘sceptic’ is frequently used to denote immoral and corrupt behaviour. Moreover, today the practice of stigmatising scepticism is not confined to a small minority of dogmatic true believers. It is quite common for scientists, policymakers and campaigners to denounce those who do not share their beliefs as vile and contemptible sceptics.

Self-help guru Deepak Chopra writes of the ‘perils of scepticism’. John Houghton, former head of the UK Meteorological Office, warns of a ‘dangerous mood of scepticism’. Economist Jeffrey Sachs has condemned climate sceptics as ‘recycled critics of controls on tobacco and acid rain’.

Typically in the debate on climate change, sceptics are characterised as dishonest, malevolent, greedy and corrupt. ‘Environmental scepticism is a blunt weapon wielded by desperate and self-interested apologists to perpetuate an archaic system predicated on the destruction of the Earth and her communities’, says New Zealand academic William Hipwell. Scepticism today, as in the past, has a bad name because for the dogmatic believer any sign of doubt, hesitation, uncertainty, questioning and even indifference is interpreted as disbelief.

In recent centuries, disbelief was seen as being synonymous with atheism, and so the sceptic was portrayed as a moral outcast. A wide range of attitudes – ‘denial’, ‘unbelief’, ‘overly questioning’ – were often associated with the morally corrupt, and as a result the term sceptic had a highly charged, pejorative feel to it.

In reality, though, it was some individuals’ insistence on questioning received wisdom which was perceived as the real heresy by the moral crusaders targeting scepticism. The fifteenth-century witch-hunters’ manual Malleus Maleficarum claimed that those who denied the existence of witches were no less guilty of heresy than the active practitioners of witchcraft.

In the centuries to follow, scepticism was frequently treated as a particularly dangerous form of anti-Christian heresy. Thomas Edwards’s Gangraena was one of the most influential works of heresiography in the seventeenth century. Published in 1644, it warned ‘first bring in Scepticism in Doctrine and loosenesse of life, and afterwards all Atheism!’. George Hickes, in his Two Treatises on the Christian Priesthood (1707), wrote scathingly about the heretic who regales ‘his atheist-ridden, or theist-ridden, or sceptic-ridden… or devil-ridden mind’.

The idea that scepticism was the precursor to the spread of moral depravity was frequently promoted by nineteenth-century Christian thinkers who felt beleaguered by the spread of secular culture. ‘A vague kind of scepticism or agnosticism is one of the commonest spiritual diseases in this generation’, wrote John Ryle, Anglican bishop of Liverpool, in 1884.

The metaphor of moral pollution through poison and disease was frequently used to diagnose the threat of scepticism. ‘In listening to the arguments of a sceptic, you are breathing a poisonous atmosphere’, said Christian author Robert Baker Girdlestone in 1863. This was an age where the uncertainties brought on by rapid change created widespread anxieties about the future. John Stuart Mill characterised Victorian England as an ‘age devoid of faith, yet terrified of scepticism’ in his famous essay On Liberty.

Yet by the end of the nineteenth century, the moral crusade against scepticism failed to capture the public imagination. On the contrary, the nineteenth-century scientific and technological revolution created conditions that were unusually hospitable to sceptical thought. English biologist Thomas Henry Huxley, who coined the term ‘agnostic’, argued that the ‘improver of natural knowledge absolutely refuses to acknowledge authority as such’, and added that ‘for him scepticism is the highest of duties; blind faith the unpardonable sin’. Liberal American philosopher and educator John Dewey depicted scepticism as the ‘first step on the road to philosophy’.

Twentieth-century Western societies were no less committed to science than was Huxley’s Victorian England. So how do today’s moral entrepreneurs reconcile their anti-sceptical inquisition with their idealisation of climate science?

Good sceptics and evil sceptics

Recently, Justin Rowlatt, who runs the BBC News ‘Ethical Man’ blog, wrote of his concern that the word sceptic was in danger of becoming a term of abuse. He noted that, since it was ‘the foundation of good science’, scepticism should be praised.

The paradox of demonising scepticism in an age when science enjoys significant cultural status has not escaped the attention of some of the advocates of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) consensus on climate change. Recently David Marsh, style-guide editor of British newspaper the Guardian, wrote that he and some of his colleagues were not sure whether to call critics of this consensus sceptics or deniers. His article appeared to suggest that perhaps a new word that could convey a sense of moral condemnation was needed.

But most supporters of the IPCC consensus are wedded to a language that stigmatises precisely the sort of questioning associated with scepticism. Some of them use the word scepticism in a way that exposes a tension between the aspiration to demonise the sceptic while appearing to uphold the convention of openness that is usually associated with scientific inquiry. Writing in this vein, Bob Ward, of the London School of Economics-based Grantham Institute on Climate Change and the Environment, notes that despite all the ‘compelling evidence… there are some who reject or deny the scientific evidence on the grounds of so-called scepticism’.

More specifically, his anger is directed at the refusal of Britain’s Science Museum to take a position on the climate-change debate. Since scepticism is usually associated with the act of suspending judgment – precisely what characterises the response of the Science Museum – Ward’s use of the prefix ‘so-called’ before scepticism suggests that he regards anything other than the acceptance of his ‘compelling evidence’ as morally reprehensible.

Johann Hari, a columnist for the UK Independent, wrote that he would not ‘use the word sceptic to describe the people who deny the link between releasing warming gases and the planet getting warmer’. Why? Because he considers himself to be a sceptic who has been convinced by the evidence offered by the science of climate change. ‘Any properly sceptical analysis leads to the conclusion that manmade global warming is real’, he writes.

From this standpoint, a critic of the IPCC consensus cannot be a real or good sceptic, but a charlatan. James Lovelock, the well-known environmentalist, also makes a distinction between good and bad sceptics. While claiming to value the sceptical ideal, he denounces the bad ones. ‘The good sceptics have done a good service, but some of the mad ones, I think, have not done anyone favours’, he says. Continuing in this vein, Lovelock insists that some of the ‘mad ones’ are of course ‘corrupted and employed by oil companies and things like that’. Moreover, ‘some even work for governments’, he warns.

For Lovelock and his colleagues, a good sceptic is someone who accepts the consensus of environmental science. Questioning such a consensus is deemed irresponsible and dangerous. In truth, Lovelock’s praise for ‘good sceptics’ is entirely rhetorical. Which is why, in a typical anti-sceptical fashion, he calls for a ‘more authoritative world’, where a few people ‘with authority who you trust’ can get on with the job of implementing science-led policies. His lament that ‘of course’ this ‘can’t happen in a modern democracy’ sounds even more ominous than the threat issued by Greenpeace’s Indian communication director.

Even the author of a book titled Empires of Belief: Why We Need More Scepticism and Doubt in the Twentieth Century is committed to routing the bad sceptics. Author Stuart Sim insists that ‘there are many so-called scepticisms around at present which do not deserve our support’. His ‘Who’s Who’ of bad sceptics includes ‘Euroscepticism, global warming scepticism and the scepticism towards modern science that goes under the heading of intelligent design’. Apparently such ‘scepticism is not really scepticism’ since ‘it is in the service of an authoritarian cause’.

A question worth posing is: why denounce individuals for their scepticism if they are not really sceptics? The confusion that surrounds the rhetorical strategy adopted by the moral crusade against critics of the IPCC consensus should not obscure the fact that it is motivated by a genuine hatred for the spirit of scepticism. To understand this process, it is necessary to go beyond the opportunist distinction that is made today between good and bad sceptics, and establish the actual meaning of the term scepticism.

What is scepticism?

Although there are numerous variants of scepticism, as a philosophical orientation it represents a challenge to the all-too human proclivity for embracing dogma. For the Ancient Greeks, scepticism was not about not believing or denying a particular proposition. The genuine sceptic rarely claims to know that a particular proposition is wrong and therefore could not counsel disbelief. No, to the Ancient Greeks, scepticism meant inquiry. Scepticism is motivated by a complex range of motives, but it is underpinned by a belief that the truth is difficult to discover.

When Socrates explained that he was the wisest man in Athens because he knew he was ignorant, he pointed to the need to understand that one’s ignorance is the point of departure for a rigorous search for the truth. The defining attitude of the sceptic is the suspension of judgment. A sceptic is someone who has not decided or is not in a position to decide.

The act of suspending judgment need not mean a commitment not to judge. It can mean the postponement of judgment while the sceptic continues to inquire into the problem. Unlike doubt, which involves a negative judgment, scepticism represents a form of prejudgment. It is opposed to dogma and the attitude of unquestioned certainty.

In some cases, of course, the suspension of judgment can be an act of evasion. But the suspension of judgment also can be a prelude to a commitment to explore further in pursuit of clarity and truth. This is important for the development of science – and it is essential for the flourishing of a democratic public life. There can be no freedom of thought without the right to be sceptical. Which is why the demonisation of the sceptic today does not simply reflect a tendency towards polemical excess – it is also an attack on human inquiry itself.

Frank Furedi’s latest book, Wasted: Why Education Isn’t Educating, is published by Continuum Press. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).) The above article first appeared in The Australian on 17 April 2010.

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Topics Science & Tech


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