Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

Agnostic scepticism

with 5 comments

Earlier today, I encountered a text by Peter Hitchens, which includes the claims:

Not since the wild frenzy after the death of Princess Diana have I ever met such a wave of ignorant sentiment. Nobody knows anything about Ukraine. Everyone has ferocious opinions about it.

The other night I shocked a distinguished Oxford academic by informing her that the lovely, angelic, saintly, perfect Ukrainians had blocked off the water supply to Crimea in 2014.

She was rightly shocked by this nasty, uncivilised act of spite, but it was far more shocking that this highly educated person did not know this important fact.

This fits well with my own increasing approach of (what I think of as) “agnostic scepticism”—that I (a) avoid taking positions on issues where I am too poorly informed, (b) do not believe claims by others without independent own verification.* (I have often spoken about “not having done the leg-work”.) The recurring reader will, e.g., have seen me complain about the high degree of ignorance and/or deliberate distortion in claims made by politicians, journalists,** and teachers, and about how I am no longer willing to base my opinions on what they claim—not even when the claim is “scientific consensus is X”. Maybe, scientific consensus is X; maybe, it is not. The key issue, that I only have their word for what the scientific consensus might be, remains. (To which must be added that even a genuine scientific consensus often eventually proves wrong in detail, and sometimes even in the big picture.) A mere claim-to-be-taken-entirely-at-trust of “scientific consensus says Martians exist” is no better than the claim-to-be-taken-entirely-at-trust of “Martians exist”. To this might be added some further considerations, like the risk that a correct opinion held for a poor reason can be worse than the wrong opinion held for a good reason—let alone worse than a more agnostic take.***

*Which is not to say that everything must be independently verified. It is perfectly acceptable to mentally file “Hitchens claims X, but I have not verified it”. The problem arises when “X” is filed with neither reservations nor verifications. Given the right circumstances, even a “Mr. Y claims X and, while I have not verified that specific claim, previous exposure makes me consider Mr. Y highly competent and trustworthy on the topic of X.” is acceptable. (But should remain a rare exception. The same confidence should not be extended e.g. because “Mr. Y is my teacher”, “Dr. Y has a Ph.D. in this field”, or “Ms. Y is a famous young singer/actress/model/activist/philanthropist”.)

**I note that I have very long been very sceptical towards journalists and journalism based on the often grotesque incompetence on display. (Journalists should be well-informed, objective, strong critical thinkers, and good writers—and, more often than not, fail on two or more of these counts. If the mode is four failures, I would be unsurprised.) What has changed over the last few years, based on gross misreporting on e.g. PC-issues and, later, COVID, is that I no longer see mere incompetence and mere “unconscious bias” as enough to explain their reality distortions. (My view of teachers have undergone a somewhat similar transformation, if not as strong. That politicians lie borders on a “Duh!”.)

***I am too lazy to search for links to older texts right now, but I have written on similar topics repeatedly in the past.

As a specific case, I have switched my original standpoint on global warming from “does exist and is anthropogenic” to “I do not know,* because I have not done the leg-work”. The original standpoint was caused by a too unquestioning acceptance of what e.g. the papers claimed; my current is much sounder.

*Note the very major difference between “I do not know” and “I disagree”. It is very possible that I will return to my old standpoint at some point in the future—but, if so, for a much better reason.

As another case, I have deliberately chosen not to take sides in the underlying issues of the Russia–Ukraine situation (not limited to the war). In light of the conflicting claims from the two camps (and mutual attempts at censorship), I am not saying that Putin (Zelensky, Biden, …) is or is not to blame, that Russia is losing badly or winning comfortably, etc. For the time being, I take the position that I do not know—and I will revise that position only if and when I gain a better understanding.

But what of all the others, who are so cocksure? Well, for starters, there are plenty of sayings, aphorisms, and famous quotes to the effect that the cocksure tend to be wrong, while those who are right tend to be uncertain. Looking more in detail, the Russia–Ukraine situation, with, as Hitchens complains, “the wholly one-sided nature of public opinion”, seems to be a matter of weak critical thinkers blindly swallowing a certain narrative*—just like many have or still do with regard to global warming, COVID, and various Leftist talking points. (Let us face it: the vast majority of the population has not bothered to actually gain even remotely the level of knowledge and understanding to hold a justifiable opinion on any of these issues, be if pro or contra.)

*And this narrative is (again!) not defended against counter-narratives or criticism by factual arguments—but by attempts to prevent dissenters from being heard. The more-or-less first reaction of the West? Shutdown access to all Russian news-media.

And here I must disagree with Hitchens: It is not “far more shocking” that this woman did not know about a blocked off water supply. Indeed, I did not either—and, for that matter, I will not take his word for it being true. (I would not be the slightest surprised, if he is correct, in light of other readings on the situation, but he too could be wrong or, even, lying.) No, the problem is that she appears* to have expressed a strong and unnuanced opinion while being poorly informed.

*Note that some interpretation of the original text is needed here, that I only have Hitchens’s claim to go by, and that I do not even know that she exists.

Exactly this type of behavior has led to no end of issues, including poor politicians being elected and poor policies followed, organizations favoring (often destructive or dishonest*) causes raking in millions in donations, etc.

*Note e.g. recent renewed controversies around BLM.

In particular, I have repeatedly heard young voters be told that “it does not matter whether you pick the right party, the main thing is that you vote at all (but please vote for us)”; I have many times heard politicians complain about citizens not voting, often framed in terms of “not doing their civic duty” or “being lazy”, with no regard for the possibility that someone might not have a firm opinion or, more importantly, might not find any of the current parties/candidates acceptable; I have on some few occasions heard the claim that the main thing would be to have an opinion, and an opinion about everything, as if agnosticism would be a bad thing.

The saner approach is the exact opposite: Vote only when you are certain that you can justify your vote based on a solid knowledge and understanding.* Form** opinions only when your knowledge and understanding allows it. Etc.

*Which is neither to say that this must amount to support of the one (it might equally be a “lesser evil” choice or opposition to the other), nor that the details of e.g. each and every candidate must be known (a heuristic based on a sound knowledge from a more general case might be enough, e.g. the sound knowledge that Republicans are currently vastly preferable to the Democrats, combined with candidate X being a Republican, candidate X not being a RINO and having no major marks against him, and candidate Y being a Democrat).

**Some degree of opinion formation is automatic and unavoidable. This is acceptable, as long as the opinion is considered tentative, no big decisions or statements are made based on it, and the opinion is revised with an open mind as need arises. Feel free to dislike Putin for the time being and in the privacy of your own head, but do not condemn him in public, donate money to the Ukraine, or urge for a referendum to have your country declare war on Russia—unless you already have done the required research.

Excursion on Michael Crichton and scientific consensus:
Taking a break before proof-reading, I went to another browser tab and found another text with considerable overlap with the above. Among other things, it has a quote by Michael Crichton that is highly relevant to my own statements about scientific consensus above:*

*Or, in the spirit of agnostic scepticism, it claims to quote Michael Crichton. I have no particular reason to doubt the claim, but, no, I have not verified it myself.

Let’s be clear: the work of science has nothing whatever to do with consensus. Consensus is the business of politics. Science, on the contrary, requires only one investigator who happens to be right, which means that he or she has results that are verifiable by reference to the real world. In science consensus is irrelevant. What is relevant is reproducible results. The greatest scientists in history are great precisely because they broke with the consensus. There is no such thing as consensus science. If it’s consensus, it isn’t science. If it’s science, it isn’t consensus. Period.

I would not go that far (at least not assuming that we see the same concept behind the word “consensus”), but I agree in as far as the sentiment is e.g. “consensus does not determine what is true, only what is currently thought to be true”, “a claim of consensus must not be invoked to proclaim dissenting positions false”, or “politicians can make laws based on consensus, but physicists have to take the natural laws as they are”. (Indeed, consensus, especially scientific consensus, is often used as the ultimate argument to authority, as a means to end a debate without having to bother with factual arguments, counter-arguments, critique, and pesky facts.)

Excursion on future stringency:
Above, I have pointed out several cases where assumptions about e.g. sources apply. This is for the purpose of illustration and I will be more relaxed in other texts—without implying a lesser degree of scepticism.


Written by michaeleriksson

May 23, 2022 at 2:09 am

5 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. […] [2], I note that the West shut down access to Russian news-media over the Ukraine situation, with the […]

  2. […] failed to commit his own mistakes.* This plays in well with much of my own writings, e.g. on agnostic scepticism: those who trust too much in the competence and good will of politicians, the statements of others, […]

  3. […] **More, I advocate a policy of agnostic scepticism. […]

  4. […] correct, and that this-or-that is a one-sided perspective. This maybe with an added pointer to agnostic scepticism or to this text, which can be seen as a meta-disclaimer. However, if I do, I would either have to […]

  5. […] To be clear: From all that I have seen, such reforms aim at making the voters more susceptible to influence from the politicians, so that the politicians can do what they want with fewer constraints. Correspondingly, such a lowering of the voting age is a threat to democracy (or what little still remains of it) and to society. (Also note similar issues with a politicians’ attitude of “it does not matter whether you pick the right party, the main thing is that you vote at all (but please vote for us)” and other nonsense. Cf. a text on agnostic scepticism.) […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: