Unreasonable doubt

A new breed of sceptic has turned a scientific tool into a political weapon. Researchers should reclaim uncertainty by being more open about how they work, says Toby Murcott.
Research Fortnight
11-07-2012

One of the ideas drummed into me as a PhD student was to be sceptical of my own, and everyone else’s, results. Was the equipment properly calibrated, had I made up all my solutions correctly, what had I missed? I was regularly frustrated and not-so-secretly satisfied when I spotted the errors of others. But I got it, and I’m proud to call myself a sceptic.

So are many others, claiming to be sceptical about all sorts of things—whether men really landed on the Moon; the efficacy, or lack of it, of badger culls; and, of course, anthropogenic climate change.

But these people aren’t scientific sceptics, they are appropriating a crucial scientific tool for political purposes. The threat is that the idea of scepticism itself will become devalued. If the scientific community wants to defend reasonable doubt, researchers must be more open about how they use scepticism, and the role it has played in the phenomenal success of science.

Most western philosophers would credit the invention of scepticism to their ancient Greek forebears—in particular Pyrrho, who lived in the fourth and third centuries BC and founded a school of philosophy that denied our ability to know anything at all. A shadow of this attitude persists in those relativistic philosophers who argue that all notions of truth are shaped by culture and world view.

Most scientists would acknowledge that they can be swayed by culture and ideology, but they would also argue strongly that objective truth exists, even if we can never quite know whether we have reached it or not. This brand of scepticism has its roots in the work of the Scottish philosopher David Hume, who in the 18th century refined Greek notions of scepticism, arguing that, when properly applied, scepticism can be a powerful tool for separating the likely answers from the improbable.

The idea was refreshed in the 1960s by the American sociologist of science Robert Merton. He described science as organised scepticism. Most working scientists would probably be happy with this definition—indeed, most would agree with the Nobel prizewinning physicist Andre Geim’s remark that you can’t be a scientist without being a sceptic. This is how scientific ideas are tested, and disproving a hypothesis can be as significant and prestigious an achievement as proving one.

This, though, is not the scepticism of Moon-landing doubters, creationists or climate-change contrarians. Theirs is a disorganised, unevenly applied scepticism that is used to get the answer they want, applying practically unattainable standards of proof to data that challenge the sceptic’s preconceived notion, and far lower standards to those that support it.

These sceptics have a variety of motives. Moon-landing doubters, for example, are conspiracy theorists, perhaps taking comfort in the idea that, unlike the duped masses, they know what’s really going on.

More threatening to the integrity of science and its place in society are sceptics using their doubt as a weapon against policy, for example on energy or education. The line between policy and evidence is blurred, of course, and opposing sides have always attacked each other’s ideas by attacking their data, but disorganised sceptics show a broad mistrust of science. Their view is summed up by the creationist Texas State Senator Don McLeroy: “Someone’s got to stand up to these experts.”

This might look anti-science, but Jack Stilgoe, a sociologist of science at the University of Exeter, argues that the true difference between disorganised scepticism and scientific scepticism is that the former plays out in public, while the latter is kept concealed within the priesthood of experts.

He believes that to be defended, scientific scepticism should be more visible. We need better ways to explain uncertainty and how science is fuelled by the absence of knowledge. There has been a notion, says Stilgoe, that the public cannot handle uncertainty, however, this is contradicted by a growing body of social science. Science needs to find ways to talk more about how science is done, about process, rather than flashy results.

Whatever the answer, there is a difference between the organised scepticism of science and a wider, disorganised, unevenly applied scepticism. One considers the data, explores the current state of knowledge and aims for further understanding.

The other is selective, ideological and designed to further a particular position, be it the campaigning of a lobby group or a nebulous gut feeling. All are legitimate positions, but if someone says they are a sceptic, it pays to know which flavour of scepticism they practice.

More to say? Email comment@Research Research.com

Toby Murcott is a science journalist, radio producer and writer. He produced Reclaiming the Sceptic, broadcast on BBC Radio Four at 9.00pm on Wednesday 11 July.

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