Can You Be Too Skeptical?

Yes.  You can.

I want to refer, down the page a little, to a controversy between medical doctors.  Dr. Andrew Newberg, whom I know only from his recorded lectures, called “The Spiritual Brain” is one; the other is Dr. Steven Novella, whom I know only from his recorded lectures called “Your Deceptive Mind.”  So far as I know, they don’t know each other and if they did, they might not know that they are arguing with each other.  But I know.

Phyrro, the father of the school of thought called Skepticism, is with us still.  At least, he is with the inventor of “truthiness.”

skeptic 1To illustrate this point—not to prove it, only to illustrate it—allow me to contrast a word that managed to survive in English with one that did not.  The word that did survive is sepsis, “a poisoned state caused by the absorption of pathogenic microorganisms and their products into the bloodstream.”  No one would ask if I had “too much sepsis.”  Any sepsis is too much.  The word that did not survive is skepsis.[1]  The OED defines it as “inquiry, hesitation, doubt.”  Their one quotation comes from 1876: “Among their products were the system of Locke, the scepsis of Hume, the critical philosophy of Kant.”

This glimpse of the two words is enough to show that they represent different ways of pointing to gains and losses and that is what I want to think about today.  An appropriate treatment of skepticism requires a balance.  There is too much, too little, and just right.  An appropriate treatment of sepsis requires only simple condemnation.  There is no just right; the absence of septicism (sepsis) is really the only good.[2]  The further you can get away from sepsis, the better.

Here is Dr. Newberg’s contribution to this dilemma.  He cites a study in which “believers” and “non-believers were asked to find objects embedded in a complex picture.  For the purposes of this study, “believers” are religious, spiritually engaged people and “non-believers” are athiests, agnostics, and people disengaged generally from religion.  I know those ways of assigning people to categories are crude, but they are good enough for this study.

He gave these volunteers a very complicated picture to study.  Embedded in the picture are some real images and some lines that “suggest” an image, but are really not images.  Here’s what he found.  Believers found a lot more of the embedded objects than nonbelievers.  They also found more “pseudo-objects,” partial patterns that were supposed to “suggest” an image, but not really to “be” an image.  So believers got more right answers and more wrong answers.  It will not surprise you that non-believers found fewer objects in the picture and very seldom mistook a pseudo-object for a real one.

This is a particular kind of finding.  It shows that believers are readier to say yes.  They give more right answers because they are sensitive to the “is this really an object” cues.  They give more wrong answers for the same reason.  A reasonable person could argue that this is a pretty good deal.  You gain this and you lose that—not bad over all.  Or one person could say that she was really more the “make fewer errors” sort of person and preferred the style used by non-believers.  Another could say he was really the “make more good identifications” sort of person and preferred the style that was more common among the believers in the study.  Most of us would call those stylistic choices.

Sepsis isn’t like that.  And, for Dr. Novella, skepsis isn’t either.  I haven’t finished all of Dr. Novella’s lectures yet, although I plan to because I am really enjoying them.  Still, I have listened to three or four hours so far and I have yet to find a study, illustration, or personal anecdote in which skepticism is not the good that is to be sought.  The good guys Novella has in mind are crouching down at the far end of the scale, as far from “over-willingness to believe” as they can get.  Novella doesn’t have anything bad to say about religion but, oddly enough, religious people are the bad guys in all of the examples.  Sometimes they are the butt of the joke; sometimes real villains.

For Newberg, skepticism is something to be engaged in in moderation.  Too much is bad; too little is bad.  For Novella, the more skepticism you can manage, the better, provided that it doesn’t drive you to be skeptical of everything as a matter of principle.  To tell you the truth, I believe that if you sat Drs. Newberg and Novella down in a room and asked them to devise a criterion for skepticism, they could do it with no trouble.  They would produce a joint statement with both signatures and call it an easy morning’s work.

Then they would go back to their studios to continue recording their lectures.  Dr. Newberg would talk about belief and believers.  The statistics show that their lives are better in every way we know how to measure.[3]  Sure you make more mistakes, but look how much better your lives are.  Dr. Novella would talk about the credulous and simpleminded (both victims and villains) who don’t recognize the power of coincidence and of probability and who, therefore, attribute agency to the oddest situations.  He regularly cites people who believe in Bigfoot, people who beliskeptic 3eve they have been abducted by aliens (as we see here), and people who assign religious answers to problems for which there are perfectly good scientific answers.

Their work, that is to say, would be entirely unaffected by the paper they had just devised and signed.  Why is that?  It is because Newberg is working in a world of too much, too little, and just right.  All the studies he reports fit that model.  And Novella is working in a world where credulity is a kind of sepsis and the better you can defend yourself against it, the better off you are.

My guess is that neither of them knows the truth of what I just wrote about them.  But if you look at the title of this post and at the first line, you know where I stand.


[1] Don’t worry too much about the spelling.  Our linguistic cousins, the British, spell this family of words sceptic, scepticism, sceptical.  We spell them skeptic, skepticism, skeptical.  I had to go back and change all the sc- words to sk- words.  My spellchecker didn’t just disapprove of the British spelling; it attacked it and Americanized it on the spot.

[2] I’m going to keep fussing with these forms.  English has borrowed an adjective from one word and a noun from the other.  The complete pattern, which English does not have—did not have until today—would offer skepsis, skepticism and sepsis, septicism.  We don’t do that.

[3] In fact, he comes perilously close to proposing that people ought to be religious because it has X, Y, and Z benefits for their health.  That pisses me off more than anything Novella says.  “Religion” that you adopt so that you will get the benefits isn’t religious enough to consider God as anything other than a tool.  Just routine idolatry in the Judeo- Christian-Muslim way of looking at things.

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About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. My wife, Bette, is the First Reader (FR) of the posts. I have arranged that partly because she helps me write better posts than I would otherwise and partly because I can hold her responsible for the mistakes that I would, otherwise, have to own up to myself.. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsey. I'm a dilettante.
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2 Responses to Can You Be Too Skeptical?

  1. Erik Andrulis says:

    Awesome post. Following your blog.

    My take: A bit of skepticism is like one glass of wine. It tastes good, lets you enjoy the moment, and does not make one blather. Too much skepticism leaves one foaming in fustian rhetoric and so red-eyed that one is veritably blind, both within and without.

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