Skepticism has gotten itself into a pickle – perhaps something a lot more serious than a pickle – that is undermining its good name. The credibility of Wikipedia may be at stake (see below). We live in a skeptical age, because the cornerstone of science, “Everything must be verified,” is a skeptical position. When a researcher claims to have accomplished something remarkable, such as cold fusion, his experiment must be replicated before it will be believed. The need to verify, to lay out credible facts, has become second nature, and not just for scientists.
Facts, data, information, research findings, statistics – these are woven into every aspect of our lives. Which means that skepticism is woven in, too. Hence its good name. Without accurate polls, politicians would be lost (consult Mitt Romney, who believed in skewed polls all the way to election night). But there is no reason for skepticism to become a militant crusade. Facts are facts, as the saying goes, and when a political ideology like Fascism identified Einstein as someone who conducted “Jewish science” (a term coined by the Nazis), such a label is not simply abhorrent – it misconstrues what science actually is, a universal enterprise that has no place for personal, religious, or political prejudice.
The rise of militant skepticism clouded the picture, however, beginning with its popular attack on religion. The aim of Richard Dawkins, as stated in his best seller, The God Delusion, was to subject “the God hypothesis” to scientific scrutiny, the way one would subject anti-matter or black holes to scrutiny. In fact he did no such thing with God, for the scientific method requires experiments that can be replicated and facts that can be verified. Dawkins offered no experiments to prove or disprove the existence of God. What he actually did was to subject religion to a barrage of scorn and ridicule, attacking it on the rational improbability – as he sees it – that a deity could possibly exist.
The commercial success of his book wasn’t hard to explain. Long ago Darwin’s theory of evolution had toppled the creation story found in the Book of Genesis, and through a domino effect the toppling continued. By the time The God Delusion appeared in 2006, organized religion was still in decline, and millions of readers were happy to seize on a “scientific” book that relieved them of any guilt over not going to church or temple. Atheism was held out by Dawkins as the only enlightened position one could take on the God question. He anticipated that readers would flock to become atheists with himself in the lead, a social movement that never, in fact, materialized. Polls continue to show that well over 80% of people believe in God, and something like 1 in 8 atheists go to church, while no massive surge in unbelief has occurred.
The God Delusion, aided by a handful of other best sellers attacking religion in the same vein, did have one decisive effect, however. Science became yoked to the tools of rhetoric and demagoguery, going so far as to lose any trace of objectivity. These tools, once shunned by science, were useful to Dawkins, given that he had no actual scientific proof that God doesn’t exist. Hostile reviewers cried foul, but the complaints came from a mixed lot of religious fundamentalists, philosophers, and theologians who hardly presented a united front. Among the most educated and the least educated groups, Dawkins had no credibility. But the job had been done. It was now “scientific” for militant skepticism to practice forms of intellectual dishonesty that have only proliferated.
Thanks to the Internet, skepticism can spread with the speed of light, carrying in its wake all forms of unfairness and bad faith. A distressing example has been occurring at Wikipedia, where a band of committed skeptics have focused their efforts to discredit anyone whom they judge an enemy. The problem has been slow to gain traction in the public arena, because Wikipedia has constructed an elaborate set of rules to minimize editorial bias. Ironically, the skeptics have turned these rules, which run to hundreds of pages, to their advantage. They have become so skilled at thwarting anyone who disagrees with their point of view that a small swarm of skeptical editors is capable of outnumbering, bullying, and even banning all those who oppose them.
You can see the results at the Wikipedia entry for Rupert Sheldrake, the British biologist who has served as a lightning rod for militant skeptics for several decades. Intelligent, highly trained, an impeccable thinker, and a true advocate for experimentation and validation, Sheldrake had the temerity to be skeptical about the everyday way that science is conducted. He made his first splash by questioning the accepted assumptions of Darwinian evolution, and most recently he published a cogent, well-received book about the hidden weaknesses in the scientific method, titled Science Set Free. His avowed aim is to expand science beyond its conventional boundaries in the hope that a new path to discovery can be opened up.
But you’d never know it from Sheldrake’s Wikipedia entry, which is largely derogatory and even defamatory, thanks to a concerted attack by a stubborn band of militant skeptics. Since I am close to Sheldrake personally and have Wikipedia woes of my own, it’s not fair for me to offer accusations over the extent to which Wikipedia is under attack. But the skeptics have been caught in the act, which is the pickle they find themselves in, as I mentioned at the outset of this post.
You can read a detailed account in a series of online posts written by Craig Weiler at his blog The Weiler Psi. Confronting the militant pests at Wikipedia resembles taking hold of a tar baby, as Weiler relates in his most recent post, pointedly entitled “Wikipedia: The Only Way to Win Is Not to Play.” The unsavory fact is that skeptics have figured out how to game Wikipedia’s attempts to provide fairness, and we are all the loser for it.
Dawkins and the militant skeptics are symptoms of a deeper problem that turns out to have fascinating implications. Noisy as they are, these hostile crusaders have had no impact on the everyday activity of doing science or keeping faith. But that is about to change. The deep question of what is real is one that contemporary science can no longer avoid. How this is leading to the decline of skepticism makes for an intriguing mystery story, which will be discussed in the next post.
(To be cont.)