‘Blind belief in authority is the greatest enemy of truth’ – Albert Einstein
OF the countless attacks on freedom of thought we have endured this past year, the concerted assault on scepticism by journalists and politicians is the most disturbing. ‘Sceptic’, once the touchstone for rational inquiry, has become a byword for irresponsibility, a sarcastic insult on a par with ‘Covidiot’ and ‘Covid denier’.
Hostility toward anyone who questions the scientific orthodoxy, even if they are scientists themselves, has become the norm. According to mainstream media, sceptics recklessly deny ‘irrefutable facts’ (Emily Maitlis, BBC Newsnight). They are ‘dangerous’ (Neil O’Brien, Tory MP for Harborough). They are the ‘anti-lockdown brigade’ (Piers Morgan) bent on sabotaging the sacrifices of others. According to the Guardian, which recently took wanton bias to a new low, sceptics are no better than a ‘robot zombie army’.
Whether they doubt government health policy, human-caused climate change, vaccine safety or news-media motives, sceptics are charged with disseminating ‘unwarranted doubt that contradicts the scientific consensus’ (Wikipedia). To their critics their motives are imprudent and anti-establishment – designed to ‘foment public distrust of official advice and encourage dangerous risk-taking’ (Guardian). To ‘the authorities’, scepticism has become no more than irritating graffiti.
It is hard to explain how horribly distorted this outbreak of condemnation has become. Quite contrary to the name-blackening from people and organisations who really should know better, scepticism IS science. Scepticism is a thoughtful, open-minded approach to life. It does not deny truth, it seeks it. It categorically refuses to accept handed-down authority, no matter how powerful the authority and no matter how personally dangerous it might be to question its validity. Scepticism is the exact opposite of carefree denial. It is faith in the importance of thinking for oneself, of coming to one’s own conclusions about the evidence, as a free person.
It looks as if the Earth is flat. But a sceptic needs to know if it really is. In the tenth century, Abū Rayḥān Al-Bīrūnī, a pioneering Muslim scientist, used the sun at noon, shadows, sticks and trigonometry to calculate the circumference of the Earth to within 200 miles.
It looks as if the sun orbits the Earth. But a sceptic needs to know if it really does. Hoping to explain an increasing list of anomalies, including variations in the apparent brightness of the planets, Copernicus (1473-1543) postulated that if the sun is assumed to be at rest and Earth to be in motion, the remaining planets fall into an orderly relationship. Accepting this meant abandoning previously sacrosanct Aristotelian natural philosophy. Consequently in 1616 the Catholic Church placed Copernicus’s case for a heliocentric universe, De Revolutionibus, on its index of banned books.
It looks as if the world is composed of solid, permanent objects. But a sceptic is driven to look beyond human senses, to question appearances. This is so fundamental to scientific investigation that Rene Descartes founded the entire scientific method on doubt, advocating a systematic process of scepticism about every belief.
It looks as if ‘causation’ is as real as rock. It looks as if value-judgments are facts. But both David Hume and Sir Francis Bacon disproved the apparently obvious, advocating scepticism as a means of avoiding biases of perception and other human predispositions.
In school textbooks it looks as if scientists conduct experiments to verify their theories in perpetuity. But Sir Karl Popper showed how this assumption relies upon unprovable induction, arguing that open-minded scientists should embrace scepticism by trying to falsify rather than prove their theories.
Not only is scepticism the basis of all scientific exploration, it is the token of thoughtful human inquiry in general. In criminal trials, when buying a car, when interviewing job candidates, caveat emptor is the motto of the wise. We must establish guilt beyond reasonable doubt, we must test drive, we must seek references – we cannot take matters at face value.
Those who are currently turning their venom against scepticism not only show an astonishing lack of erudition, but they are not brave enough to question what they are told, preferring the refuge of conformity to the freedom of disruptive doubt.
There are endless reasons to be sceptical. The truth does not present itself to us. We must seek it. So we must doubt endlessly.
Experts disagree. Policies change repeatedly. Data are open to different interpretations. The number of children admitted to hospital for mental health reasons in the pandemic outstrips those with physical conditions. The government won’t say when restrictions will be lifted because it is unsure of their effectiveness, but at the same time it insists they work. It makes no sense.
In the face of such a shambles, scepticism is the only intelligent option. We don’t need less scepticism: we need as much as we can muster. We need dissenting voices. We need sceptical data analysis. We need to question and question, and then question again. We need diversity, controversial ideas, insights, new possibilities – we need open, scientific, social and ethical debate. And when we act, we need to do so conservatively, never with such sweeping disdain for civil liberties.
‘How is this going to end?’ is scepticism. ‘We can’t stop now because we must get the R number down’ is gullibility. Responsible, scientific reflection versus self-blindfolded table-banging.
We can no longer accept narrow judgments from a cabal of experts who refuse to engage in sceptical discussion.