#GoodFences – Is Scientific Skepticism Enough?

I gave a presentation to Teesside Skeptics in the Pub on 15 December 22

Diana had asked us a question – on the Facebook Group Page in November 22 – about “whether we identified as scientific sceptics, and what that meant to us?”

Back in August 22 Humanists UK had asked us to say if and how we identified as humanists, and I had created this summary of how I identified with what used to be called “the freethought movement”. I offered that as my response to Diana’s question.

Questions of identity – how we identify, ourselves or anything else for that matter – always prompt my #GoodFences response and I used that theme for my December presentation.

Apart from the two introductory slides I delivered the presentation as the paper pasted below:


Many dimensions, one I’ve done to death before – that cracked record – is not today’s topic.

How we behave as Skeptics in the world? Is NOT today’s topic.

eg Something more than (scientific) skepticism for “us” as a body of people, a movement. If we spend time on discussion, dialogue, debate and argument with “them” – outsiders whose positions / claims we are skeptical of, we disagree with – we maybe think they’re wrong – then the lesson is MOST of that argument is not about (scientific) facts, not about logical arguments of critical thinking and it’s rarely actual debate. It’s dialogue with “rules of engagement” – the first rule of which is that both parties respect the argument and are in good faith in seeking some progressive outcome. If not it’s a political battle – woke, anti-woke and all points between. About the winning of arguments, where rules of facts and logic remain relevant, but ever less so, and more about power & action – even direct action – even critical theory – on either side.

That’s about skeptics’ behaviour in the world outside. Today’s topic is more about the content of scientific skepticism – internal aspects, being skeptical of sketicism – meta-skepticism

 Prompted by:

Diana’s question:

“What does it mean to you to be a skeptic? I have considered myself a skeptic for decades but only recently turned my skepticism on myself, at which point I realized that up to that point, I’d based my identification on the fact that I was skeptical of other people’s claims. The mistake … etc.”

Diana’s questions about identifying as a skeptic whilst being skeptical about skepticism.
Applying skepticism to ourselves – Meta-skepticism.

Terry – sharing “Identity in Translation from the Wokish” https://newdiscourses.com/tftw-identity/

The identity we see in these contexts as largely “identity politics”.

“#GoodFences simply says all identity is political and requires humans to care. The limits to scientific skepticism are matters of identity and definition. What are they? Rejecting “identity politics” is no option.”

My point: is that, even inside (good) science and scientific skepticism, identity is essentially political.
I’ve been tagging #GoodFences and/or #GateInTheForest for a decade or more (see *aside).
All identification (& definition) is essentially political – for a purpose – and good none-the-less.

[* Robert Frost and G.K.Chesterton metaphors. I first came across in real-life day-job in engineering, cataloguing “nuts & bolts” over 30 years ago. I’ve been writing about limits to knowledge for over 20 years and started using the tags when I noticed one was a good metaphor for the other:

If you come across an unexpected barrier, a fence across your path (Frost), maybe with a gate in it (Chesterton), but stretching off invisibly into the forest either side, you can’t tell what is being fenced off from what or why. First, assume it’s there for a good reason. Even if you don’t know what that is or don’t have any relationship with the owner or neighbour on the either side, respect it, don’t flatten it.

If you need to, ignore it as a barrier, climb over – or open the gate and close it behind you if there is one – and proceed about your own business at your own risk for now. But don’t wreck it. When you eventually get to know the neighbour / owner you might mutually agree the need for a gate or re-route the paths or move the fence to a more appropriate location. Much harder if the original boundary is a walled embattlement. Fences are good. #GoodFences.

Working boundaries (definitions & identities) are good now,
necessary, useful, even if contingent, revisable, moveable later


No problem with skepticism / healthy-scepticism per se

Skepticism in the sense of doubting or questioning claims – and looking for good evidence and arguments for claims that have real world consequences – is obviously fine, limited only by pragmatic issues of needing to make decisions to act even in cases of residual doubt. Common sense part of checks and balances of daily life. (Avoiding analysis paralysis or any excuse to avoid a difficult decision. Obviously even residual doubt can be further questioned, and significance analysed statistically, especially in risky / hazardous situations, tolerances, p-values, n-sigma margins, confidence intervals, etc, etc.)

My problem is with the presumed “scientific” aspect of scientific skepticism – the limits to good evidence and argument. Is science – can science be – the only arbiter of good evidence and argument? And as I’ve already alluded, I see those limits as political. Identity politics.

(Success? Even if you don’t get or are skeptical / in disagreement with my answer, if I leave you with the question – about there being limits to science and logical argument – I will have achieved success. A brake on our hubris in the external battles of wit.)

Recap, back to the two prompts for this discussion:

Diana / Me – Meta-skepticism – I am skeptical, I’m a skeptic, I’m even skeptical about skepticism. I identify with Teesside Skeptics and the wider skepticism movement, but I don’t “identify as” (base my identity upon being) a skeptic. (So what do I identify as, if anything? Does that even make sense?)

As well as being an adult human male, son, husband, father, grandfather …
I’m an engineer, I’m a skeptic, a non-theist humanist …,
I’m a joker, I’m a smoker, I’m a midnight toker,
I sure don’t want to hurt no-one.

Terry / Me – Identity – was already my point (which is why I joined the dots).
Identity as part of the “Woke Agenda” – about identity politics

So …

Woke & Anti-Woke?

We’ve been using Woke as a label for something infecting skepticism, struggling with it internally as well as externally.

  • Woke = recently / naively woken up to a particular (or particular collection of) human rights injustice(s). Then politically campaigning for that right as if it were somehow paramount amidst all other facts and rights, and prepared to use direct action and critical theory methods in support of their campaign.
  • Anti-Woke = also differently Woke, but recently woken up to the knowledge that reality is more complex than that, and yet also politically campaigning against the woke on the basis of their / our own collection of prejudices – science, skepticism, objectivity, critical-thinking, human rights, environmental concerns, etc.

A pox on both their houses (NB rules of engagement), even though most of us here identify more with the latter?

“On an enormous range of topics, it’s possible to neatly sort opinions about that topic into a pair of rancid buckets marked woke and anti-woke”
J.P.O’Malley (just yesterday)

 Identity and Definition

We give names / symbols / labels to “represent” the things we want to talk about in sentences or manipulate in logical formulae. If we’re talking generally about types or classes of thing, we attach “definitions” to those names – so people can fit things to names. If we’re talking about a specific individual thing, the name is a tag or label, a sufficiently unique handle to represent its “identity”. But that identity is defined by all the properties and relations the individual has.
(And lots of qualifiers too, real / imagined, possible / actual, conceptual / physical … )

Ontologies & Taxonomies – everything is divided (hierarchical and heterarchical) into things we give names to, things we want to treat as objects in our world, even objects that are subjects in their own right. Sub-Division to be able to represent, talk about and organise in discourse, in life generally. Our chosen purposes for that model (eg science), quite independent of any external power politics. Divisiveness is something else.

Identity and Definition are distinct but related / similar. We think of identity as a handle to get a grip on the thing we’re interested in. Sometimes we lose the label, are lost for the right word, but the thing still has its own identity – discoverable from the sum total of all its properties and relations. Definition is a kinda short-hand for the set of things that make the thing what it is. For an individual you might need all those properties to identify the whole – I (and Diana and Terry) may “identify as” skeptic but it neither identifies nor wholly defines us – I also know several Dianas and Terrys. Crucially in any taxonomy of types / classes / groups / sets of things, definitions of the things we give names to are “binary” – this-not-that, an A where B applies (examples) – short-hand in the local context of the whole model. And remember dictionary definitions are discovered by usage, not a priori / axiomatic – unless your purpose has chosen them as axioms of your model. As true of scientific models as any other. Systematic self-consistency of logic within the model of science can’t also define all its axioms.)

The bases of membership of classes & sets (etc) – slicing and dicing as part of analysing parts of our model. On what basis / bases? Any number of ways / bases of doing so, essentially arbitrary which and in which orders of importance, so always “political” choice to achieve some purpose or value of your model / ontology. Which basis is primary or “paramount” to our purpose.

Simile and Metaphor. Many names and definitions rely on metaphor, explicitly stated “like” or otherwise. In fact, there is a real sense in which everything humans have given names to was originally metaphorical, it’s just that the metaphors die and are mummified in the history of language and usage.

Which came first – brain like a computer / computer like a brain? We had brains long before there were the things we named computers, even those humans we used to call computers. Computers as electronic brains? Even that came after Turing Shannon et al abstract computation and universal computing “machines” and not before more humans knew what physical computers were. But even though brains / minds are “profoundly different” to (those things we call) computers, who would deny the thought that a mind is “like” a computer in so far as it processes information between inputs and outputs, even if it does so in profoundly different ways?

People might be terrified of putting human minds into a box called “computation” but it’s quite different from recognising the value of computation – information processing – aspects (a good fence) vs treating as mind as if it was “a computer” – reduced to being identified and defined as such (surely a bad move)?

Example(s) even within science.

Contrasting Newton with modern quantum and relativity stuff.

Newton struggling to find names of mass and force, tendencies and resistances / inertia. They are / were metaphorical. Names which say nothing about what they actually are (internally) intrinsically, just handles to talk about their (external) behaviour. And very useful given all the causal laws generated in mathematical / logical language. Not even “cause” escapes this metaphorical move – intrinsically nothing more than repeatable and predictable patterns of behaviour captured in the laws formulated. (Higgs anyone?)

With even more modern stuff the metaphors – colour, strangeness, spin – not even any attempt to disguise that they’re just handles with names chose by analogy unrelated to what they “mean”. (A good thing.)

Woke example(s)

Dividing / discriminating between things and grouping / unifying things are both normal part of organising our world (as above)

  • Human (human rights)
  • Man / Woman / Hetero (bio and neurotypical)
  • L/G/B (biotypical but neuro-atypical)
  • TIQ+ alphabet soup – all atypically real in their own bio / neuro / socio ways

The tension is between the good fences taking true account of actual differences on the ground and the groupings for organising life, inheritance of which rights (and responsibilities) and the groupings like “no LGB without the T” for political campaigning. “Don’t mention the difference, Pike!

Astronaut Russell Schweikhart – the John Lennon “Imagine” fallacy – https://www.context.org/iclib/ic03/schweick/

“You look down there and you can’t imagine how many borders and boundaries you cross, again and again and again, and you don’t even see them. There you are – hundreds of people in the Middle East killing each other over some imaginary line that you’re not even aware of, that you can’t see. And from where you see it, the thing is a whole, the earth is a whole, and it’s so beautiful. You wish …”


Working Definition of “Scientific” what is identified by the label scientific skepticism.
(Cut to the chase?)

Science or scientific as a class of knowledge? Scientific endeavours involve all human and artistic resources like insight, imagination, creativity and rhetoric, (not to mention honesty and all the other values and virtues) but we wouldn’t consider evidence and arguments scientific if they didn’t meet certain specific criteria. We know this set of criteria doesn’t define the whole of what science is, but it identifies specific aspects necessary to be considered scientific. Knowledge that doesn’t meet them – and further criteria for the quality of good or bad science – would be considered non-scientific.

I’m going to focus on these three considerations:

    • Holism vs Reductionism
    • Determinism vs (Strong) Emergence
    • Objectivity vs Subjectivity

Although they are contrasted here, they are also quite related too. I can’t talk about any one of them without referring to the others. Again, good fences to recognise and understand different things, but also recognition that such fences are not divisive of all activity – chosen purposes – based on the chosen name / definition.

In reverse order:

Objectivity vs Subjectivity

One aspect of science is that evidence be objective and repeatable independent who does the science. Great lengths are taken to exclude subjective variation and take account of other circumstantial factors. The names and symbols of such observable “objects” can then be manipulated in the formal language of scientific laws.

When the objects of the science are themselves humans or sentient beings (eg in social sciences) objectivity is maintained with indirect reports between the scientists and their subjects. Internal reports from subjects are excluded unless evidence gathering design introduces such a layer of objectivity. Objectivity (however fully defined) is a criterion for scientific knowledge. Subjectivity is explicitly excluded.

 Determinism vs (Strong) Emergence

A huge and contentious subject in its own right. And closely related to Reductionism vs Holism as well as what counts as an “object” in objectivity above.

Determinism says the behaviour of all things in the real world is determined by the laws of physics in terms of their physical components and arrangements. Therefore, the idea that causation arises independently of such determinism – in higher levels of chemistry, biology, psychology and sociology – is entirely illusory. Such causal laws may be useful short-cuts but are fundamentally nevertheless determined by physics.

Strong emergence says that emergent levels, and emergent objects in these levels, have their own existence, emergent from their history in lower physical levels, but with new causation here and now in their own right as emergent objects. (Even humans with “free-will”).

 Reductionism vs Holism

Reductionism – like determinism says all causation / the chain of causation is determined by analysis and arrangement of parts. The behaviours of the parts and their physical laws determine the behaviour of the whole. It goes further, and therefore focusses on analysis and arrangement of parts to the incidental or accidental exclusion of the wholes.

Holism – quite independent of the mechanisms of emergence per se, says that – causation at any level is explained by both wholes AND parts. So strong emergence, but also treating all objects and subjects as complex systems – Systems Thinking. (Ergodicity anyone?)

Scientific Criteria

For our purposes here, whatever wider definition we consider of science as a whole, the criteria for being scientific are something like Objective, Determinist and Reductionist, but fundamentally not by what it is but by “process & methodology criteria”.

Scientific Skeptics should be aware of the limits of their science. Obviously, I’ve drawn my “good fences” and you might want to draw yours somewhere different. But I challenge anyone to deny that a great deal of value will always lie in the un-scientific band?



So if I don’t “identify as a scientific skeptic” what do I identify as?

Human, humanist, non-theist, skeptical rationalist (provided we don’t restrict rationalism to narrow “scientific” criteria), etc, etc. Many overlapping aspects (I even mentioned more earlier).

One all-encompassing identity?

I don’t hold “science” as the paramount value – the most sacred thing to defend in all contexts – because some contexts are not scientific. A massively important part of the whole, but not the whole. The whole is the natural world and humanity’s place in it. That’s something I would instinctively defend, independent of any immediate claims to the contrary.

The “but science” defence is met with the skeptical “but is science the most relevant thing here?” Questions of where humans and humanity fit in the natural world (cosmos) and what our relationships / intentions / actions should be are not themselves science.

I identify with Sacred Naturalism (until someone can come up with a better name).


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