Neo-skepticism and post-truth: a call to reason


This is a relatively long essay in which I address a variety of highly polemical topics, such as science skepticism, post-truth, climate change, etc. You will not really know what my positions are until you read this post through. Partial reads will likely lead to misinterpretation.

Story control

Until not so long ago, our cultural mindset about most issues of importance was largely determined by only a few outlets of the mainstream media. These outlets were, by and large, trusted implicitly and rather uncritically by our parents and grandparents, perhaps even by our younger selves. Their reporting, even if occasionally suspected of bias, was mostly seen as an expression of the truth. Indeed, these outlets were our key channels to perceived truth: what was actually happening in society, who was friend or foe, which countries were good and which were bad, what were the proper values to live by, systems to comply with, philosophies to give credence to, etc. They exerted what I call 'story control': editorial power over a mainstream narrative that massively influenced how we thought and lived.

This relative monopolization of a society's view of the truth goes back to the Church's firm grip on the hearts and minds of the people in the middle ages and, much farther back still, to when emperors set the tone for how entire populations were to think. The very few free, critical thinkers that managed to raise their head above the story control were anathematized throughout most of history. The power of centralized, monolithic broadcasting systems was as formidable as it was unnoticed: so pervasive and taken-for-granted it was, most of us didn't even notice how deeply manipulated we all were by their editorial choices and subliminal suggestions.

I am not talking about premeditated conspiracy theories here. Human beings can hardly extricate themselves from their own beliefs and views, and so their actions inevitably reflect such beliefs and views. The people responsible for mass communication in yesteryears—be them priests holding Sunday sermons in the middle ages or editors of the 8:00pm news in the 20th century—did their job informed by their own perspectives and biases, because doing so is only human.

Be that as it may, the result is that the storyline they enforced reflected the particular prejudices, in a particular point in history, of the intellectual and economic elites that held control over the centralized broadcasting infrastructure of the time. One could even make the case that metaphysical materialism itself spread beyond academia only with the popularization of newspapers in the 19th century and of radio—and later television—broadcasts in the early 20th century.

Centralization and the elites

For economic and technological reasons, the means to persuasively broadcast views to the general population—and, thereby, exert story control—have been limited and centralized for most of recorded history. In the middle ages, the Church not only retained control of scholarship (everybody else was too busy fighting wars or toiling the fields), but was also in a unique position to broadcast its message through its formidable logistical infrastructure and, frankly, marketing appeal. In the 20th century, the knowhow and investment required to start a significant radio or television broadcast operation rendered it feasible for only a very few. And so the general storyline that informed entire civilizations reflected the particular perspectives of relatively few individuals with privileged access to both knowledge and economic power. I am not passing judgment on whether this was good or bad; it just was, for reasons we can easily understand.

As a result, entire societies were subtly subjugated to the views developed by the elites, who had more access not only to the knowledge of their time, but also to expensive, centralized broadcasting infrastructure. Again, I am not passing political judgment on this state of affairs; in my crazier daydreams, I even imagine that some form of enlightened absolutism—if it were realistic, which it is not—would be the ideal governing system. Nonetheless, I believe it to be an ascertainable fact that our culture's mainstream views were developed and maintained—for the past many centuries—as I've just described: enforced top-down by an elite with privileged access to knowledge and centralized broadcasting infrastructure.

Knowledge drunkenness

The problem is that knowledge isn't a very reliable or even stable thing, nor does it always come hand-in-hand with economic power. Even science—the most reliable method for the development of objective knowledge ever devised by humans—is done by humans and, as such, vulnerable to the entire gamut of human shortcomings: ego, ambition, pride, prejudice, etc. Chronicling the early days of science in the 17th and early 18th centuries, Ernst Benz wrote:
The findings of modern science were forged in this atmosphere of passionate conflict. The favor of the court, the intrigues of ministers, the rivalry of colleagues, the competition of university chairs, personal dislike and self-justification, social concerns, political cabals and covert influences, the pride and triumph of inventors, human weakness, gossip and convention all played their part in this drama. (p. 45)
If this sounds familiar, it is because little has changed. We are, after all, still human. Most of science is done by academics who have families and egos to feed and, therefore, a vested interest in the social recognition of their work. Doubtlessly, the vast majority displays integrity and honesty. Often enough, however, human weaknesses translate into false or biased research results that are nonetheless published. Though there are safeguards to keep such spurious results in check, chaff does pass through the filters. The raging replication crisis in science is the result.

Equally concerning is what I shall call the 'drunkenness of knowledge.' Acquiring more knowledge—for instance, upon achieving a doctorate—exposes one to a broader horizon of things still unknown. In principle, this should have a humbling effect. In practice, however, one often starts believing that one's mere opinions or intellectual dispositions are in some sense privileged or superior.

The problem is that accumulating knowledge within a certain field is one thing, but being able to sensibly interpret and apply this knowledge beyond the restricted boundaries of that field is another thing entirely. Many scientists fail miserably in the latter challenge. When one becomes drunken with one's own limited knowledge, one starts making unjustified—and often outright ridiculous—extrapolations of that knowledge beyond its boundaries of validity. This is particularly visible amongst the self-appointed spokespeople of science when they inadvertently venture into the untamed horizons of philosophy. In recent times, painful examples have been provided by Lawrence Krauss and Neil deGrasse Tyson. It is understandable—though unfortunate, as I shall discuss shortly—that, in face of such raw stupidity raging amongst PhDs, one might throw one's arms up and become a science skeptic.

The intellectual and economic elites are not immune to bias, delusion and even in-your-face stupidity. The highly specialized stupidity of PhDs is particularly pernicious, and I say this as a double PhD myself. Knowledge-drunken doctors are dangerous because of the self-confidence with which they extrapolate their limited understanding, the authority they command while doing so, and the access they have to centralized broadcasting infrastructure. Their foolishness and hubris infects entire societies and ways of life.

Decentralization and neo-skepticism

Since the turn of the century, however, things have been changing fast. Old idols are being burned, old illusions seen through. There is a new level of skepticism about the mainstream narrative, which has been rendering story control less and less effective. People see through the pompous but ultimately hollow attitude of arrogant elites. They realize they have been, to some significant extent, systematically manipulated. With a renewed critical attitude, they realize their emperors have no clothes.

I am not claiming that skepticism about the mainstream narrative is a new phenomenon in history. There have always been free thinkers and skeptics; there has always been doubt about what people are told from the higher echelons of society. But there is something happening now that nurtures this skepticism to levels never before seen: the decentralization of broadcasting technologies enabled by the Internet and social media.

For the first time, people are able to broadcast their skepticism, their own alternative views, and connect with other likeminded people so to build entire communities. For the first time free thinkers no longer find themselves in social isolation and can reach an audience. Would you have heard of my own work if not for this? One no longer needs to be invited for an interview at a major television channel in order to be heard: an engaging blog post can go viral and make one's non-mainstream ideas popular overnight, without any kind of editorial control. The social and cultural dynamics this 'neo-skepticism' is introducing in our civilization are dizzying, and—I suspect—will only be fully appreciated decades from now, with the context and perspective that only hindsight can provide.

A new level of responsibility

Undoubtedly, there are tremendous positive aspects to this new dynamism. The chains of story control are being broken by a democratization of broadcasting technologies and a widening of unmediated social interactions. There is less editorial control by elites effectively censuring what one can hear. We have more options, more hypotheses to consider about everything: from the very nature of reality to how best to live our lives. Our individuality—our ability to choose how and what we think, and how we act in the world—has been empowered to levels only accessible to the aristocracy in previous ages.

However, this means that never before in history has each one of us carried so much responsibility for our choices. The empowerment of the individual—of our personal reasoning, opinions, beliefs and actions—places the future of organized human activity in our hands. We are now actors, not mere audience. The conclusions we arrive at, out of our personal and sovereign assessment of our situation, determine our collective future. The steering wheel is now in the hands of the many perhaps as much as in those of the elite few.

Throwing the baby out with the bath water

And here is where things can go terribly wrong. It is definitely naive, in this day and age, to hold on to the belief that the authorities are infallible; that the opinions of PhDs must always be right; that science never gets it wrong; that what the mainstream media says is always true. Of course it isn't. We are all just humans, plagued by prejudice and bias and desperately trying to make sense of things. Nobody has the final answers. Everyone is confused and, frankly, afraid in this extraordinarily strange situation of being alive in the 21st century. The illusions of sobriety and control held by our forefathers have been broken for good and we must learn to live with it.

But we have made progress over the past centuries. We are not starting from scratch. As fallible as many scientists are, science itself, as a method of inquiry, is one of the greatest achievements of human civilization. As often as it gets things wrong, the entire technology infrastructure that surrounds us everyday, from the moment we wake up to the moment we fall asleep, owes its existence to past scientific accomplishments. You wouldn't be reading this if science didn't get things right, and chances are you wouldn't even have survived your childhood. If you trust that the car you drive will bring you to where you need to be, or that the phone you use will put you in contact with the people you want to talk to, or that the medicine you take will help cure your health condition, you implicitly trust science. And you do implicitly trust science every day.

By the same token, as much as knowledge drunkenness is a scourge, knowledge itself has obvious and undeniable value. To disregard the value of learning is to place our future in the hands of complete ignorance, to give the steering wheel to a blind man. That some PhDs proudly pronounce stupidities doesn't mean that there is no role for PhDs to play in our society. If tomorrow I require surgery, I will want to be operated by a very learned and experienced doctor who knows what he or she is doing; not by a butcher. Next time I fly across the Atlantic, I will want my plane to be piloted by a very learned and experienced pilot who knows what he or she is doing; not by the guy sitting next to me.

I don't know how to perform surgery or to fly a plane. That's why I shall continue to entrust these tasks to those who know how to perform them. By the same token, I think I know a thing or two about philosophy and computer science; more than Lawrence Krauss or Neil deGrasse Tyson. So when it comes to the essential nature of reality or issues around artificial intelligence/consciousness, I trust my judgment over theirs. Knowledge matters.

If neo-skepticism ends up leading to an aversion to knowledge itself, our civilization will end and we will live like apes. Some people do know more than others, especially when it comes to the subjects to which they have dedicated their lives, and that is a good and very important thing. These people should be appreciated and respected for what they do know. To ignore or deny this reality is deadly: try flying in a plane piloted by your surgeon. It is legitimate that knowledge commands authority, provided that such authority be granted within its appropriate scope.

Objective facts

The value of knowledge resides in its apprehension of objective facts; that is, facts that obtain whether we like them or not, believe them or not, are aware of them or not. Even metaphysical positions that deny materialism and grant primacy to mind don't reject objective facts: my own analytic idealism grants that there is an objective world out there, beyond our personal mentation, even though I maintain that such world is constituted by transpersonal mental states.

The denial of materialism is not a denial of objective facts. Neither does it entail or imply that reality is entirely what we make of it. While I grant that the observer's role in perceived reality goes much beyond what metaphysical materialists accept, I don't think my own personal ego is constructing my entire life out of its own innate whims and dispositions. There is something out there that doesn't care about what I personally wish or think. The salient aspects of this something is what we call objective facts.

Science is the best method ever devised for giving us knowledge of the behavior of the objective world out there. Its essence resides in the following axiom: if you want to know whether a statement about nature's behavior is true or false, look at nature's behavior. Put this way, it's a truism. Yet, it is surprising how often such truism is neglected. When Aristotle claimed that heavier objects fall faster than lighter objects—a statement about nature's behavior—he forgot to look at nature to see if it's really true. It took hundreds of years until Galileo famously dropped his balls from the top of the leaning tower of Pisa to prove that it isn't true.

By looking at how the world behaves—preferably according to the scientific method—we acquire knowledge about the objective facts that constitute the world. As complex and imperfect as this process may have become, it is still essentially correct, for the same reason that any sane person will believe Galileo over Aristotle in the question of falling bodies. As such, there are no such things as 'alternative facts.' Believing that a heavier body falls faster than a lighter one (if air resistance can be disregarded) doesn't make it so, no matter how strong the belief.

The value of being skeptical about certain views is precisely the renewed space it opens up for the contemplation of other views that may, in turn, correspond better to objective facts. Skepticism that denies all objective facts themselves is just madness, and defeats the very spirit of skepticism.

Climate change

Everything discussed thus far comes together in the debate about climate change. It has been claimed that scientists have been caught manipulating data about it, some of the other data available are contradictory, politicians make preposterous statements, activists go to extraordinary lengths to mobilize action, etc. Represented in this wild discussion one finds the (very human) shortcomings of doing and reporting science, story control by elites, knowledge drunkenness, etc. It would be naive not to acknowledge this, as it would be naive to simply believe, uncritically, what any individual scientist may say about a subject of such enormous complexity as the behavior of our planet's climate. It is legitimate to be cautious and guarded about climate change. It is legitimate to be taken aback by Climategate.

But if the reaction to this appropriate skepticism is to simply disbelieve that human-caused climate change is taking place, then one ultimately betrays skepticism. After all, disbelief is just another form of belief: negative belief. Proper skepticism should prompt us not to outright reject a hypothesis—and thereby effectively adopt its counterfactual alternative, i.e. that humans are not causing climate change—but to investigate the issue more thoroughly and thoughtfully. While many research results are flawed, misleading, and even outright wrong, these failures can be discerned and overcome if one looks at a more complete body of research. Science does have a knack for ultimately correcting itself.

Although the observations required for figuring out whether we are causing climate change are much more complex than dropping balls from the leaning tower of Pisa, the essence of the approach is the same, and the reasons for trusting its validity are also the same: we want to look at nature's behavior to see if we have any reason to believe we are screwing up the climate. The proper way to go about it is studying the question from multiple different angles, looking at a variety of independent sources of data, applying multiple different models, all of which should ideally be done by multiple independent research groups, funded by multiple independent parties. It is this global overview of a body of research that gives us confidence in a given conclusion, even in the presence of spurious results: the reliable conclusion is that which emerges independently from multiple lines of investigation.

I don't want to make this post about climate change. I am simply using it as a carrier to illustrate my previous points. But by looking at the body of research in the way described in the previous paragraph, I have convinced myself, to my own satisfaction, that human-caused climate change is a reality. You may agree or disagree, but this is my own sovereign conclusion, and I live my life accordingly. This is my way of taking responsibility.

Climate change, in my view, is the most critical case in which runaway neo-skepticism can overshoot the boundaries of reason, throw the baby out with the bath water and, given the level of responsibility we are now personally invested with in the world of social media, eventually lead to the collapse of our civilization.

Conclusions

The dynamisms underlying the rise of neo-skepticism are, in my view, primarily a positive development in human history. They open the door to a new, broader, uncensored relationship with truth. They help our society move more quickly away from entrenched but ultimately wrong views held by the elites. Delusions and deluders are seen through and given the appropriate treatment. Masks are removed. A more caustic, perhaps even cynical, but truer view of reality is achieved after centuries of sweet and sober manipulation. To consider neo-skeptics foolish or deplorable ignores the important and, in my view, valid realizations that underly and motivate their attitude.

Yet, swinging the pendulum all the way to the other extreme overshoots reason, betrays skepticism and ultimately may bring catastrophe upon our civilization. In modern Western democracies, we have the power to elect demagogues that prey on our frustrations at having been deceived by elites in the past. These demagogues may ultimately allow the world to be destroyed in the interest of maintaining the image of being skeptic of everything, even the existence of objective facts or the validity of science as a method.

Skepticism can be preyed upon by demagogues. The way to do it is to infer far too broad and generalized conclusions from the realization that something believed before is actually untrue. For instance, from the realization that scientists are flawed human beings and many scientific results are spurious, one infers the far too general and irrational conclusion that a specific scientific result is also spurious. The latter just doesn't logically follow from the former. Similarly, that knowledge drunkenness renders certain learned individuals pernicious doesn't entail or imply that knowledge itself isn't valuable and important. Finally, that the elites have manipulated society doesn't logically imply that all positions they hold are untrue. It would be rather surprising if they all were, wouldn't it?

I urge neo-skeptics to remain alert and truly skeptical, even—perhaps particularly—about those who have something to gain from the emergence of neo-skepticism. To escape from one form of manipulation just to fall head-on into another, perhaps even more dangerous one is tragic. Let us not throw the baby out with the bath water and protect the future of our civilization with reason and level-headedness.
Share:

5 comments:

  1. Brilliant. Please do not hesitate to continue to express yourself like this Bernado.

    ReplyDelete
  2. I'm a bit disappointed by your nonchalant comment that, "Scientists have been caught manipulating data about [climate change]". You reference this with Wikipedia's page on Climategate, which in fact states the polar opposite, "Eight committees investigated the allegations and published reports, finding no evidence of fraud or scientific misconduct." Do you have reasons to contest these conclusions?

    ReplyDelete
  3. Very good and well considered points Bernardo- keep 'em coming!

    ReplyDelete