The Role of Scepticism

By way of an initial and possibly limited definition, we might characterise scepticism as simply a questioning of knowledge or belief. Of course, at the outset of this questioning, we may not be in a position to make any critical judgement as to whether the knowledge or belief is correct or not. However, this website has repeatedly made reference to William Clifford’s essay entitled ‘The Ethics of Belief’, published in 1877. While the links allow reference to more details, the conclusion of Clifford’s essay might be summarised in the following quote, which might also help explain the necessary role of scepticism.

`It is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything on insufficient evidence`.

Clifford supported this conclusion by recognising that we start out, in childhood, having to accept the weight of authority on many issues, but which can then simply propagate into adulthood. Therefore, he argues that a duty of inquiry is necessary, based on a presumption to doubt and to investigate, rather than a presumption to simply believe, irrespective of the apparent authority of the source. As such, Clifford argues that all knowledge has to be questioned and therefore requires some degree of scepticism as a valid and necessary part of the process of coming to some judgment of the supporting evidence. We might also make reference to the following quote by Voltaire, who also questioned the certainty of knowledge and beliefs.

“Doubt is not a pleasant condition, but certainty is absurd.”

In the context outlined above, scepticism cannot be described as a denial of accepted knowledge or belief, if it represents the necessary questioning of the evidence that is assumed to support knowledge and belief. Rather it is a fundamental part of the scientific method. Of course, there are some who will always reject the accepted weight of authority on different issues because it cannot be integrated into their worldview. Therefore, before starting to discuss the ‘role of scepticism’, it may be useful to provide some wider introduction about the sum total of what we might be sceptical about. For example, the working of the universe is clearly very complex, although there are many ideas about how we might best rationalise this complexity in different ways, i.e. philosophical, theological and/or scientific. While some may be convinced of the certainty of their worldview, even though it might not really address all the ‘how and why’ questions, others have the right to be sceptical of such certainty. Previous discussions have tried to characterise the nature of our different worldviews in terms of three approaches to knowledge and belief, i.e. philosophical, theological and/or scientific, as represented in the table below.

Approach Premise Rational Empirical
Theology Belief No No
Philosophy Idea Yes No
Science Fact Yes Yes

While these three approaches are not necessarily mutually exclusive within any given worldview, it might be accepted that they can be based on very different assumptions, which cannot all be correct. Again, it is accepted that the table is overly simplistic in its summary and possibly misrepresents the characterisation of the premise, rationale and evidence underpinning each approach. However, based on this table, it might still be argued that a theological belief can develop without any obvious rational logic, which we might assume has to underpin a formal philosophy, but where neither may have any empirical evidence to support their assumptions. Therefore, it might be assumed that science must differ from both these other approaches, because it is conceptually required to provide some form of empirical proof. How people proceed from this point will depend on which approach they prefer, as their choice is often influenced by their cultural up-bringing, which in a historical context has invariably required general conformance to the accepted beliefs of their society.

But what is the role of scepticism in more worldly matters?

We might recognise the problem of uncertainty surrounding the ‘how and why’ questions associated with the totality of the universe. As such, these questions remain open to philosophical, theological and scientific debate, but where scepticism should still be allowed to challenge any of the assumptions. Of course, as defined, the role of scepticism can still apply to our knowledge and beliefs about more worldly scientific matters, such that we might challenge the empirical evidence that appears to support its many assumptions. In this context, the discussion will now focus on the scientific worldview, which we might assume has to proceed on empirical evidence, although we might still inject a note of uncertainty. For it might reasonably be argued that the history of science tells us that no scientific theory has ever withstood the test of time without some form of revision, despite previously representing a consensus of opinion. If so, we need to be careful, possibly sceptical, of the idea that a consensus of a majority alone provides the necessary proof of a scientific hypothesis.

Note: We might recognise that a scientific idea may be subject to different levels of confidence by its description of being a conjecture, hypothesis or theory, which also implies different levels of verification. However, modern science has become increasingly dependent on mathematical models, especially when physical reality is too complex to describe in detail and the mechanisms extend beyond the ability of science to directly verify.    

This website has attempted to carry out an honest, but possibly limited, duty of inquiry into the three main scientific models of the 20th century, i.e. relativity, quantum mechanics and cosmology. Admittingly starting from a position of ignorance of the many details associated with these accepted models, scepticism had to be constrained to a simple questioning of the assumptions. However, as an understanding of these models developed, scepticism of some of the assumptions, but not all, changed from simply questioning to rejection, if the mathematical model did not provide any reasonable description of cause and effect, such that we might table a question.

Is this form of scepticism a denial of accepted science?

Again, it might be argued that accepted science might only imply a limited consensus, which in itself is not conclusive proof, such that uncertainty may remain. However, if doubt is allowed, albeit being an unpleasant condition, then critical thinking about problems is retained within the scientific method, which will either be proved unfounded or lead to new and better models. Unfortunately, many who support the idea, and assumptions, of an accepted model often perceive the questioning of their model as a denial of proven science and, as such, criticism should be suppressed as a form of heresy towards science. While we might understand this reaction in terms of human nature, it seems to reflect an intolerance that was once associated with religious heresy at the time of Galileo and therefore not good for science or society.

But surely this is a problem of the past not the future?

While this essay will not pursue any specific examples at this stage, many might perceive that intolerance is still a problem in science today, which can distort open debate and affect policy making in many other areas of society, i.e. political, economics and social. Unfortunately, it has to be recognised that some people are often driven by their own self-interests, e.g. careers, esteem, influence and wealth, such that they will try to seek to suppress any dissenting voices, which might be seen to act against their interests. In science, this can be achieved by cutting the funding of research that challenges any of the assumptions being promoted as a mainstream consensus, where the influence of this engineered consensus can be used to block dissenting publications by the scientific peer review system.

Note: While the statements above might be seen to be verging towards a conspiracy theory, rather than just being an argument for the valid role of scepticism in science, it is possibly naïve to assume that science is immune to the human problem of self-interest.

However, we shall return to firmer ground and the role of scepticism, which might be seen to have been supported by the 1995 and 2000 editions of a publication by the National Academies of Science (NAS) entitled ‘On Being a Scientist’ as highlighted in the following quote.

“The fallibility of methods is a valuable reminder of the importance of scepticism in science. Scientific knowledge and scientific methods, whether old or new, must be continually scrutinized for possible errors. Such scepticism can conflict with other important features of science, such as the need for creativity and for conviction in arguing a given position. But organized and searching scepticism as well as an openness to new ideas are essential to guard against the intrusion of dogma or collective bias into scientific results.”

This seems to be a balanced assessment of scepticism in that it recognises both positive and negative effects, although this statement was removed from the 2009 edition. Of course, this omission might be interpreted in one of two ways, i.e. that the role of scepticism is self-evident or, more worrying, that it is no longer tolerated. Of course, even supporters of scepticism have to accept that any challenge to accepted science must be based on good scientific arguments or risk being classified as unproductive and potentially damaging denial. However, might we not assume that a reasonably authoritative and impartial assessment of a scientific argument can still be made, even though it may not agree with the current consensus, such that it can be openly debated.

Note: Unfortunately, today, the idea of a reasonably authoritative and impartial assessment may become ever more difficult in the age of mass media, fake news and internet opinion, which may be engineered by self-interests that may be far from obvious. Of course, such issues do not just affect science, but the whole of society, and can give the legitimate role of scepticism a bad name.

It is not clear how the worldview of current and future generations will be affected by such developments, but there is a danger that public opinion, on all manner of issues, might be manipulated for reasons of self-interest rather than the greater good of collective society. In part, the various essays in this section will attempt to explore some of these issues, but for now will close with a somewhat tongue-in-cheek quote, which nevertheless may be good advice.

“In science, keeping an open mind is a virtue, just not so open that your brains fall out.”