What do you mean by scepticism?

Hat tip to Moth Incarnate.

In a brilliant post comparing “climate sceptics” with those who deny the effectiveness of vaccination he nails what it means to be a sceptic:

Later in The Vaccine War, Barbara Loe Fisher, president of the National Vaccine information Centre, said, “… People are taking control of their own health. They want to be more in charge of the way that they live and not simply rely on a doctor.”

When I heard this, I couldn’t help but retort pointlessly at the TV, “Well get a bloody degree on the subject then.”

As with climate change denial and creationism, there is a confusion as to what valid scepticism is. It’s not remaining unconvinced, which is simply a personal belief that goes beyond reason and analytical judgement.

Valid scepticism, or more correctly, scientific scepticism, results from training and is not a native behaviour (in fact, it seems we’re inherently programmed to designate purpose, potentially as a side effect of our large brains and our modern world – see here, nearly 2mins in).

To be sceptical of vaccination, evolution, AGW or any other scientific conclusion is to have developed an understanding of that subject and to be able to analyse the evidence critically – as occurs within scientific community.

Dang, I wish I’d written that!

33 thoughts on “What do you mean by scepticism?

  1. Sou says:

    Good catch. I’ll borrow it often🙂

  2. Sou says:

    – that is, as long as you don’t mind, Moth🙂

    • Sou,
      Honestly mate, go for your life! We need to beat it into those who war against reason and demonstrate just how primitive/backwards and ultimately ideological their views are. What’s at stake is the modern world itself. It’s not sensible to assume yourself a sceptic because your unconvinced – being unconvinced could come from understanding enough about a subject to know the conclusions or the evidence are lacking just as much as it could come from ignorance.

  3. stogy says:

    Sorry, I really like what you are trying to say here, but I think you are conflating health and medicine – not the same thing at all.

    I work in public health, and we really DO want people to become critically engaged and active in building community health. Doctors are just the people we pay to patch us up after something has gone wrong – like climate mitigation, really.

    • I have to disagree with you. A first aider is some who simply patches us up. A doctor is someone who has much greater than average understanding on their selected field.

      Of course everyone with any understand in any field of science want as many people to understand the subject as best they can. If they did, then there wouldn’t be climate change “sceptics”, anti-vaccination groups, creationists etc. There would only be scientifically sceptical people.
      The problem with these individuals is that they’re not interested in the evidence – in many cases they’re blind to it – but rather, they’re interested in pushing their own misinformed conclusions. They pass themselves off as sceptics, stating that they’re “not yet convinced”, which is entirely different.

      They are very opposite to the ideal that you speak of – they reduce the ability of creating a supportive community based strong health care. In the article, I quote a doctor who states that much of the money and hours that could’ve been spent on understanding autism better was needlessly spent on addressing the anti-vaccination hysteria.

      The point is such wars against reason are incredibly detrimental to modern science, scientists and the promotion of healthier societies around such understanding. Referring to doctors as “just the people we pay to patch us up after something has gone wrong” also undermines the training and experience that these people acquire – in some cases from more than a decade of study. It in itself also devalues the science and such scientists.

      If you want people to become engaged and to trust and work with doctors, it’s not going to come about by devaluing their profession but helping to re-establishing peoples trust in science and scientist (which also requires a massive effort to re-educate the general public of what science actually is and achieves).

      • stogy says:

        Ah! See this is exactly what I am talking about. I am not a concern troll – I genuinely believe that climate change is a very serious threat. I also believe that vaccination is really important in protecting children, even whole communities, from infectious disease.

        However, my argument is really that the analogy is false, because immunization, while important, has had a lesser impact on improvements in quality of life and overall life expectancy than clean water, education, nutrition and food safety, employment, community safety and control of violence – all of which are public health issues. Almost none of which are overseen on a daily basis by my doctor.

        “I have to disagree with you. A first aider is some who simply patches us up. A doctor is someone who has much greater than average understanding on their selected field.”

        Right, and then sends children back to the same dirty water in a developing country that made them sick in the first place. Or walls with lead paint? Or a smoky environment, poor nutrition etc?

        Why not fix the well?

        Now this discussion has lead me to something else (and proves my ability to stay on topic, moreover!). Public health – the new public health – deals a lot with ecological models, rather than behaviour change. Just for example – why is it that people still eat unhealthy food, smoke, do dangerous, stupid things – even though they know that it’s killing them? It’s not about providing more information – we need to change the social environment in which the behaviour occurs. People make poor choices because it is easier, cheaper, more convenient for them to make those decisions than not to do so. So we need to upend the social environment in which the behaviour occurs, and we can promote healthier behaviours. And we do this in the face of the tobacco lobby and junk-science vaccine denialism.

        What if we were to work in a similar with climate change? Use public health/community-based change models to begin a change process. We would still need the information from scientists, but what if we were to try different ways of disseminating it – community forums, rather than acrimonious blogs. And groups that worked in bipartisan ways? Groups that focussed on how promoting community awareness and advocacy for policy change – ultimately at the population, rather than the individual level. Look at how the fab people at Skepchik have taken on the anti-vaccine lobby, and got their ads removed from cinemas!

        Jeez. I’m sounding like a fundy. Sorry. I still think it’s a poor analogy. Medicine is only a small part of what makes up health.

      • Stogy,
        you’ve got to be kidding me.

        “immunization, while important, has had a lesser impact on improvements in quality of life and overall life expectancy than clean water, education, nutrition and food safety, employment, community safety and control of violence – all of which are public health issues.”

        Really? vaccination has increased life expectancy and if these anti-vaccination groups would disappear, we could do what we’ve already done with smallpox to many other infections. Vaccination is very important.

        What a straw man to then suggest we return children back to dirty water wells! You know how and why water quality has improved?

        You guessed it – SCIENCE!!

        It is you who doesn’t get the point of this, or my post from which it came from – the anti-vaccination group are simply another group of deniers convinced that they are sceptics. We simply cannot work with such people as history has shown that no amount of evidence assists with their reasoning – they are sure that they’re right, regardless of all else, and are committed to undermining reason.

      • stogy says:

        What a straw man to then suggest we return children back to dirty water wells!

        We do return kids to the dirty well. Every day. We fix the illness but not the cause. It’s not a straw man, and there’s tons of evidence. Start with the Report on the WHO Commission on the Social Determinants of Health. There is also a great report on the State of the World’s Indigenous Peoples which has an excellent section on health.

        “Vaccination is very important.”

        Yes.

        You know how and why water quality has improved?
        You guessed it – SCIENCE!!

        Yes. I agree. What I disagree with (and what I reacted to) is the suggestion that people have to be doctors to improve their health and community health – when medicine and vaccines are only a small part of what actually makes us healthy. However I wouldn’t dispute that science underpins most of our improvements in health.

        “It is you who doesn’t get the point of this, or my post from which it came from – the anti-vaccination group are simply another group of deniers convinced that they are sceptics.”

        Actually I do get the point of it and overall I agree with what you are saying. You may well be right about the sceptics. But this sentence of yours really irked me:

        “When I heard this, I couldn’t help but retort pointlessly at the TV, “Well get a bloody degree on the subject then.”

        It’s just this analogy that’s wrong – that we need a medical degree to be able to talk about health. We don’t. Health is too important to be left in the hands of doctors. Particularly when most of the health information we receive comes from people other than doctors. We need better health literacy and better science education.

      • Stogy,

        “It’s not a straw man, and there’s tons of evidence.”

        I don’t think you understand what I straw man argument is. It’s where you build up something, rather than the argument provided, and then tear down that which you built, assuming that in doing so you’ve brought down the original provided. You did that with responding to

        (my argument) “I have to disagree with you. A first aider is some who simply patches us up. A doctor is someone who has much greater than average understanding on their selected field.”

        (with) Right, and then sends children back to the same dirty water in a developing country that made them sick in the first place. Or walls with lead paint? Or a smoky environment, poor nutrition etc?

        That was a straw man argument – you didn’t, nor have, approached the point to the quote above in relation to the original article it came from.

        “What I disagree with (and what I reacted to) is the suggestion that people have to be doctors to improve their health and community health – when medicine and vaccines are only a small part of what actually makes us healthy.”

        This is not the point of Mike’s post here or my original article to begin with!!

        What is being said here and the original post is that true scepticism results from a clear understanding of the topic and not simply from being unconvinced. What we have with the anti-vax groups, climate change ‘sceptics’, creationists etc are groups of people who claim to be sceptical of the science, yet in fact they are merely unconvinced based on limited understand (or in many cases, a flat rejection) of modern scientific reasoning.

        It has nothing to do with saying, “leave it up to the experts”, but rather, “if you have an opinion on the science, it is merely a personal belief unless it is based on relevant training, experience and/or awareness of the evidence base available and thus doesn’t hold the same weight as critical analysis of the science (ie. being scientifically sceptical)”

      • With the statement that irked you – it is explained in more detail on my original post.

        To whom I said that about as a Barbara Loe Fisher, president of the National Vaccine information Centre, who has done some good work in better management of vaccination but at the same persists with the same argument (ie. “more studies need to be done”) regardless of how many times her argument has been addressed.

        She completely suspends all critical faculties to ’empower’ an idiotic liberation from the labours of modern medical science. This liberation supports the anti-vax groups, homoeopathy, faith healing and all other forms of either untested or tested and proven to be very ineffective forms of “treatment”.

        I go on to explore her argument using different examples – such as with removing the mechanic, police, electrician (how often has slap stick comedy been about a father daring to fix something he has no idea about with hysterical ramifications? How often does this happen in the real world? Barbara is empowering such behaviour).

        What irks me is a parent forcing their children to be vegetarian (which has potential for malnutrition of such growing bodies), parents approving of their children to be vessels for disease transfer within the community, parents stuffing certain ideological views down their children’s throat, leading them to reject scientific understanding, parents who refuse to accept smoking as a problem and continue to do so around their children – or even while pregnant (I still see this all the time), etc etc etc.

        This is the point of it all – if we want healthy and functional communities, it will not come about but pandering up to such airy-fairy well wishes but proper education. What an adult does to themselves after such education is entirely up to them – but what they do to their children is entirely different.

        By treating these forms of denial seriously – by referring to them as sceptics – we validate nonsense. We validate the anti-vax groups. I’m not a hard-arse really. I often get accused of being a hippy for my of my “green” attitude – but I assure you that I’m critical of evidence first and foremost. I avoid medication as much as possible, but take it as required. I eat as natural as possible (I don’t even eat much meat), but that too is a result of the understanding I have about the energy requirements of food production. etc etc etc.

        It’s possible to be more ‘natural’ and ‘down to Earth’ without the untested New Age nonsense.

      • stogy says:

        That was a straw man argument – you didn’t, nor have, approached the point to the quote above in relation to the original article it came from.

        Actually, I did. I already said I agreed with the point. I just don’t agree with your analogy. It’s only a straw man if I set up a false, weaker argument to knock down your own argument. I wasn’t trying to attack your main argument at all – and I thought I made this clear (like, over and over again). I was merely disagreeing with your analogy – health is not medicine. Hence, there is nothing in what I said that constitutes a straw man. Sorry. I made my point. Let’s leave it here.

      • Well there your point is irrelevant, as I was never confusing health with medicine, but defining the difference between personal belief and scientific scepticism.

  4. adelady says:

    OK Sou. How on earth do you involve those rabid anti-vaxxers in improving community health?

    Their whole objective is to reduce immunisation levels. They “say” it’s about parents making their own decisions. But as soon as you ask them whether they would take their unvaccinated children into a maternity hospital where they can both directly and indirectly endanger newborns, you see what they’re really like. It wouldn’t be ‘their’ fault if an as yet unvaccinated babe contracts an infectious disease.

    Anyone who says that infants under 6 months who get ill (and die) from pertussis were unlucky in not having a mother who breastfed them “properly” is beneath contempt.

    Immunisation is -the- preeminent community health program. The eradication of smallpox is one of the great scientific achievements of the 20th century. These people are willing to endanger the progress we’re making to eradicate needless death, injury and suffering from other, easily- controlled infectious diseases.

    In one way, I think they’re worse than the agw deniers. We can’t produce facts, figures and photos of the future under continued warming. But there are ample facts, figures, photos and people walking around as evidence of the dangers of these diseases. You can actually -see- it. You only have to look.

  5. Helen Bang says:

    We were right in the middle of the MMR situation when it first broke in the UK as our firstborn was due to have his jab. We seriously considered paying to have the jabs separately (it’s free on the NHS for the combined vaccine) but in the end went with the advice from our Health Visitor and GP. Obviously now it’s been exposed as a fraud we’re very relieved that we did. I have to say that the stories featured on radio shows and in the newspapers from parents whose children had ‘changed’ after the jab were very compelling. People like stories about people, not statistics.

    One of the problems was that it came not long after

    ‘mad cow’ disease. The Government told us British beef was safe, then it turned out that it could potentially cause CJD. I think that seriously damaged trust in authority.

    Most people still don’t appreciate how serious an illness measles is. They think Calpol or antibiotics will fix pretty much anything.

  6. john byatt says:

    dont get to excited or expect any consistency from climate change deniers,

    this person is an athiest and posted this on a forum today, this person rejects the science of global warming

    Ripley’s believe it or not

    “What I noticed was that most of those against vaccination, are those people not old enough to have any history with the diseases the vaccinations target.

    Clearly very ignorant and foolish people are getting too passionate about scaring the bjesus out of families who vaccinate their children.

    The scientific view must take precendence over hysterical masses of folk who are of the opinion their child regressed after being vaccinated. There is no evidence to support the idea the child would have not regressed without being vaccinated.
    Too much drama and insanity happens when misinformation is peddled by hysterical individuals finding obscure links on the internet, that are total garbage.”

  7. john byatt says:

    sorry did not check spelling above

  8. elsa says:

    The trouble with this analysis Moth is that you decide that climate “science” is scientific in the same way that vaccination is. With vaccination we can test. With climate we cannot. So the two are not similar. It suits your point of view to try to say that views that are demonstrably wrong about vaccination and evolution are similar to disagreeing with your AGW view. But you have still not answered the questions that you need to answer if you are to claim to have science on your side about climate.

    • I’ve explained enough of the science involved to you previously and others have also tried to provide to you links to where you can get an introduction to the science.

      Unfortunately you’ve decided to remain ignorant on the subject to maintain your one, single nonsensical argument.

      Climate science is science – because of the political noise around it, it’s actually obtained even more attention than most fields of science and thus is a very critically analysed field, more than most.

      You’re, “they made a loop hole so both hot and cold prove AGW.” argument is at best, childish.

      • elsa says:

        Possible falsification is what lies at the heart of science. Unless you can falsify a theory it can make no claim to be scientific. Your repeated claims are never backed up with an answer to the two questions I asked you and calling the argument nonsensical or childish won’t make it go away.

      • Elsa,

        I’ve tried, Sou has tried, Sealrick has tried – you continually avoid evidence simply to make that silly argument time and time again. All three of us have answered you, you’ve simply avoided the answer.

        It is your argument that is both childish and (being as devoid of reason as it is) ideological.

        As Diethelm and McKee (2009) state,

        “The normal academic response to an opposing argument is to engage with it, testing the strengths and weaknesses of the differing views, in the expectations that the truth will emerge through a process of debate. However, this requires that both parties obey certain ground rules, such as a willingness to look at the evidence as a whole, to reject deliberate distortions and to accept principles of logic. A meaningful discourse is impossible when one party rejects these rules.”

        You fall down at the first part of this because you simply avoid the opposing argument instead of engaging with it. Thus no-one can have a reasonable debate with you. (I’m just waiting for you to twist it to somehow support you rather than me – it’s really pathetic that you refuse to engage on a topic your so vocal about).

  9. Sou says:

    Funny about self-diagnosis. Last year I went to the doctor to complain about feeling faint and weak and having a bad earache. I said to her “Before I ask you about my problems, could you give me something for my insect bites?”. She looked at the bites and immediately retorted “Those aren’t insect bites, that’s shingles!”

    Just goes to show – and I hadn’t even listed my ‘feeling faint and weak’ symptoms.

    Trust the experts, people. Get a second or even third opinion if you like. But don’t resort to quacks (or amateur deniers) just to find an ‘opinion’ you can agree with.

    BTW – shingles isn’t pleasant, but not the worst I’ve been through by a long shot. And shingles goes away in a few weeks, unlike overdoses of CO2.

  10. Sou says:

    Elsa, climate science is every bit as much science as medical science is. In some ways it’s much simpler than medical science, in other aspects it might be more complex. Just because you don’t understand the science doesn’t mean it’s not science. I expect there are a lot of things you don’t understand but which you accept without thinking.

    Don’t confuse your mental block with a lack of scientific evidence.

  11. Sou says:

    elsa, this post is about scepticism. Re-read it and think about it because it seems to apply to you.

    If you want to discuss climate science itself, visit realscience.org. A lot of scientist comment on that website, and real scientists write the posts. It also has a lot of resources that might help you. If you find realscience.org too scientific, can I suggest skepticalscience.com, which explains the science to non-scientists.

    (I take it from your comments that you are new to climate science and do not have any scientific education. So skepticalscience.com might be the best place to start.)

    • There’s really no point with Elsa, Sou. She trolls the blogosphere, asking this question of everyone and rejoices because she’s too naive to engage with the answers provided.

    • adelady says:

      That’s very kind of you, sou, to make such offers to elsa.

      But I got sucked in a couple of times with elsa’s wide-eyed wonder at the complexities of science. That’s a few 30 minute parcels of my life I’ll not get back. I made a real effort to avoid scientific bafflegab and put the principles and issues into simple straightforward language. No dice.

      I’ll probably weaken and do it again sometime.

      • Sorry to hear that you were yet another who wasted your time on trying to take Elsa seriously, Adelady. I’ve become convinced that Elsa is not a genuine person, but one of those committed trolls out to spread misinformation (in Elsa’s case really poor quality at that).

        I also experienced a few strange characters popping up to support Elsa (also demanding that I explain what I had already explained to her) with a first name (same as their screen names) followed by @garforth-bles.com which I’m convinced are part of a tag team and again not genuine individuals.

        In Elsa’s case, I think the best option is not censorship, but the removal of spam that gets passed the filters.

  12. Nescio says:

    Seeing some of the comments I would suggest people read the following:
    http://contusio-cordis.blogspot.com/2010/07/dunning-kruger-effect.html

    Cheers

    • Watching the Deniers says:

      It’s a good post – well worth reading.

      • adelady says:

        D-K effect underplays the seriousness of what many people like this are actually doing.

        I’ve spent many hours of my life dealing with stubborn teenagers who *insist* that their chaotic, so-called method for solving algebra problems is A-OK, despite the fact that their answers are more often wrong than right. They’re really not interested in ‘right’ answers, let alone using stipulated methods. They’re too besotted with the idea that other people’s methods and analyses -must- be wrong because they disagree.

        But deep underneath that, they do really know that the adult/ teacher/ expert is right. They just can’t bring themselves to face up to the reality – that admitting it means admitting error on their own part.

        Many wrong ideas and arguments show D-K effects. But persisting in the way that so many do is D-K only for the obsessed cranks who’ve come up with some sideways explanation of their own devising. The majority are genuine deniers – of the stubborn, immature, my-opinion-is-as-good-as-anyone-else’s, everyone else must be lying varieties.

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