On the nature of scepticism: Sceptic versus science

How many times have we heard various people proclaiming that we sceptics are “anti-science”. For those of us taught science at a time when we were taught to be sceptics: to doubt everything until it is proven by experiment, this seems the bizarrest form of insult. Because surely the science is based on the scientific method and therefore to be a good scientist you must be a sceptic?

As a result many sceptics have repeatedly asserted that alarmists are not real “scientists” that they have fallen by the way and are not on the true path of science.

However, what I would like to propose is that whilst science means “knowledge” and scepticism means “doubt” and so they may appear to be contradictory, that scientific knowledge is created through scepticism or doubt as such that they should be seen as complementary not contradictory.

Science, from the  Latin scientia, Greek sciō (“to know”) therefore the substance of science is knowledge, that is what is understood, or what we already know. In contrast sceptic comes from the Latin Sceptici (“the sect of Skeptics”), from Ancient Greek σκεπτικός (skeptikós, “thoughtful, inquiring, doubt”). Thus the substance of scepticism is not what we already know, but questioning that knowledge, inquiring about what we already know, that is what we currently might term “research”.

To put it simply: science is what is already known it is the sum of what can be written – what can be read in a text book and regurgitated in an exam because there is no doubt and we know what we know. In contrast, scepticism is inquiry, doubt, what is not yet currently known. It is not the consensus, it is the process of inquiry, interpretation, analysis and doubt=scientific method by which we create new scientia or science.

One, Science is something tangible: the body of current knowledge, the other sceptic or scepticism is not a substance or entity, but is instead a process. The two ideas work in very different ways linguistically. When we talk of “science” we talk of something that has substance, something that can be named. When we say “sceptic” it is an attribute: that someone is sceptic, they are sceptical.

You can’t say someone is “science”, you can say someone is a sceptic. You can point to a body of “science”, you cannot point to a body of “sceptic”. You can deny “science”, because that is the denial of what we already know, but you cannot deny “sceptic”, because it is an attribute, a way of looking at the world.

Sceptic is a process, the doubt that says: “I want to see a control in this experiment to prove (aka doubt) the result is from the cause which is asserted”. Sceptic = inquiry/doubt is the way to create knowledge whereas science is that knowledge.

To put it in mathematical terms if

Science = f(t)

Then sceptic is given by:

Sceptic = δf(t) / δt

Because inherent in the philosophy of scepticism is the view that all science = knowledge can be questioned that not only can it be “denied” to put it in the parlance of alarmists, but that science must be denied in the sense of having doubt about the current status quo in order that we begin the inquiry that leads to discover what is yet unknown: that which is not yet science.

Or to put it mathematically:

Science = ∫ scepticism δt

So, yes if you believe science is a constant, that it cannot be changed, then you will inevitably believe sceptics are “deniers” of the current status quo of science.

The sceptic method

The one fly in the ointment of this categorisation is what is often termed the “scientific method”. What I find fascinating is how important this is to all sceptics in the climate debate. Sceptics are almost fanatical about the need for the “scientific method”. In contrast alarmists seem to hate it. We had Trenberth trying to “get rid of the null hypothesis”. We constantly hear the argument from lack of knowledge “because no one can prove it is something else it must be CO2 wot did it”. Indeed, when Lewandowsky wrote is “sceptics believe in moon landings” … it turned out that sceptics are less likely than most to believe in conspiracy ideationism – whereas all alarmists seem to believe sceptics get massively paid by some dark conspiracy of “coke brothers” (as I like to call them).  Climate scientists hate the “scientific method”, Sceptics are fanatically about it.

Why is this?

Science is knowledge and by its very nature it tends to attract those who like to know. But far too often the people who do well in “science” are the librarians of knowledge. They like to categorise what is know, to file it away, to put it into order. They are the teachers who take what is known and dogmatically and rigidly teach it to the next generation as the indisputable truth – that which cannot be questioned – that which is not open to scepticism.

It is a truth, not often told, that the theory of science is not itself part of science, but instead it rightly belongs in the realm of the philosopher. Likewise, the scientific method, whilst assumed by many to belong to science, instead belong to sceptics. Because it is not part of science, but instead is the gateway to science.

The scientific or more aptly named “sceptic method” is necessary doubt about new ideas which forces us to test those ideas so as to prove their value. But science is what is already known, and scientists don’t doubt what they know. Only the sceptic doubts even what is already known, not the (librarian) scientist. Thus scepticism, doubt, the “sceptic method” belongs rightly to sceptics not scientists. It should be called the “sceptic method”, or even simply “scepticism” because that is rightly what it is.

Science and scepticism are complementary

The main thrust of this article, is not to try to say scepticism and science are two different things. Instead, I’m trying to say they are two facets of the same thing. Science could not have developed without scepticism because there would not have been the necessary doubt and inquiry into the previous “science” which was then religious dogma such as the earth being at the centre of the solar system. But science also needs all the librarians and teachers of the status quo the custodians of the current knowledge to be passed on who have no need to question that knowledge.

Thus great researchers are not just great scientists in the sense they have a thorough grasp of what is currently known aka the “science”, but they are also great sceptics: inquirers willing to doubt the current state of knowledge and when proven by evidence against due scepticism, to embrace change.

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4 Responses to On the nature of scepticism: Sceptic versus science

  1. Steve borodin says:

    I agree mostly but, to be slightly pedantic, l disagree with “until it is proven by experiment”. Experiments don’t prove. They provide supporting evidence. When we have sufficient evidence we can have sufficient confidence to use a theory as if it were fact, sometimes within a restricted band of parameters.

    Nevertheless, you make important and necessary points.

    • Scottish-Sceptic says:

      There speaks the sceptic – as a sceptic I’d have to say something like “not able to be disproven by experiment”. However if we go to the extreme philosophical point of view, there is no way to prove anything at all and realistically, things get taken as “hard science” because they get generally accepted rather than through the actual unquestionable proof.

      So, there are really two standards. There is the one used in academic “science” – which is that it becomes “accepted science” the moment a few buddies down the pub agree that it passes peer review, and then there is the sceptic one – that says in reality nothing can ever be proven, there can only be greater and greater confidence that the results/effects are genuine. In other words, nothing is ever beyond doubt and therefore always open to further inquiry.

  2. Casey says:

    The path to knowledge is NOT to accept something without a little doubt over it.

    Automatic and blind acceptance is the path to stupidity (just look at the masses around us now!)

    No scientist can call him/her -self such and not be sceptical.

  3. Guirme says:

    According to French philosopher Descartes everything was subject to doubt (or scepticism) except for the one undoubtable truth – “cogito ergo sum” (I think therefore I am). In Scotland we were fortunate to have perhaps the greatest sceptic of all – David Hume. If only more of today’s politicians and “climate scientists” were familiar with our great philosophers and their inherent scepticism we might get a much greater emphasis on a logical and sceptical approach to knowledge and decision making.

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