The Myth of Consistent Skepticism

Skeptical Pug is skeptical

Skeptical Pug is skeptical

Todd C. Riniolo and Lee Nisbet writing in the June 2007 Skeptical Enquirer:

Many readers of the Skeptical Inquirer (the authors included) have labeled or referred to ourselves as “skeptics,” which implies objectivity in our approach to evaluating various claims. However, we all have limitations and built-in biases that hinder our ability to apply the methods of skepticism objectively and consistently. Nonskeptics and professed skeptics alike are equally vulnerable to developing beliefs that have not been subjected to rigorous skeptical inquiry. Furthermore, skeptics (like nonskeptics) may refuse to change their viewpoints even in the face of substantial discrediting evidence.

Thus, skeptics would be well served to realize that we are selectively skeptical. Our purpose here is to (a) make clear why no consistent skeptic exists, (b) review the major biases that obstruct our ability to apply skepticism consistently, (c) provide a concrete example of selective skepticism in a great mind (Albert Einstein), and (d) challenge skeptics to reevaluate their own ability to apply the methods of skepticism consistently.

Does a ‘Consistent Skeptic’ Exist?

We are defining a “consistent skeptic” as an individual whose entire belief system is composed of beliefs that have been subjected to objective skeptical inquiry. Even those of us who claim to be skeptics are vulnerable to nonskeptically formed beliefs. This is because (a) we do not have time to evaluate every claim that becomes part of our belief system and may rely upon what is commonly believed or what we would like to be true; (b) we are more likely to perform a skeptical evaluation for claims that are inconsistent with our current belief systems (e.g., psychic powers), while simply accepting claims consistent with our beliefs (e.g., Einstein was a skeptic); (c) many beliefs are already formed and reinforced prior to learning how to think skeptically; (d) some beliefs are formed based primarily upon an emotional evaluation; and (e) skeptics have limited areas of expertise (e.g., a biologist may know little about economics), which restricts our ability to skeptically evaluate all potential claims because knowledge is extremely specialized.

Next, a “consistent skeptic” continually subjects his or her beliefs to possible modification based upon an objective evaluation of further evidence. While beliefs can be modified, research shows that we all possess biases that not only typically strengthen existing beliefs (both true and false), but often maintain beliefs in light of strong contradictory evidence. We will briefly discuss three relevant biases inhibiting consistent skepticism: the confirmation bias, biased assimilation, and belief perseverance (see Gilovich 1991 for further examples of how our cognitive systems can mislead us).

First, we all look for evidence that is consistent with our beliefs. In short, we tend to believe what we wish to be true, but we do so “objectively.” Specifically, we typically do not seek out discrediting evidence for our current beliefs with the same vigor that we look for supportive evidence (Gilovich 1991). Psychologists call this a confirmation bias (see Nickerson 1998 for a review). Confirmation bias has been demonstrated in a wide variety of contexts (e.g., stereotypes, political beliefs, financial decisions, beliefs in psychic abilities), and serves to strengthen current beliefs. Furthermore, the confirmation bias generates additional collateral “evidence,” allowing beliefs to persist even when the initial evidence is discredited, because we can draw on evidence obtained from a variety of sources. As a quick test of the confirmation bias, readers can look through their personal collections of books. Do you have an equal number of books that are both consistent and inconsistent with your beliefs? Do you subscribe to or read periodicals, newspapers, etc. that present perspectives contrary to your political beliefs? (The authors confess that their book collections and periodical and newspaper subscriptions are highly skewed in favor of their political beliefs.) Likewise, how do you feel about opposing political perspectives, especially concerning issues you are keenly interested in (e.g., the current Iraq war, school vouchers, privatization of Social Security accounts)? Do your feelings influence your assessment of the correctness of different perspectives? Likewise, are you surrounded primarily by others that share your views, which in turn strengthens your beliefs (i.e., group polarization)? A consistent skeptic would not be biased toward confirmatory evidence.

Second, we are biased in assimilating information into our belief systems. Not only do we seek out information that supports our beliefs, but we also apply differing standards of evidence. As research has demonstrated, “People who hold strong opinions on complex social issues are likely to examine relevant empirical evidence in a biased manner. They are apt to accept ‘confirming’ evidence at face value while subjecting ‘disconfirming’ evidence to critical evaluation, and as a result to draw undue support for their initial positions from mixed or random empirical findings” (Lord, Ross, and Lepper 1979, p. 2098). A consistent skeptic would apply the methods of skepticism to all claims consistently and evaluate the evidence in an unbiased manner (i.e., without double standards).

Finally, many studies have demonstrated that it can be difficult to change a belief even when substantial discrediting information is provided (i.e., belief perseverance; see Anderson and Kellam 1992). This is especially true when we have constructed a rationale supporting the belief, or for strongly held emotional beliefs (Edwards 1990). Belief perseverance explains why a “true believer” (e.g., Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who believed that mediums could communicate with spirits) continues to maintain beliefs despite powerful discrediting evidence (e.g., Harry Houdini’s exposure of mediums as frauds or confessions by the mediums). Furthermore, research by Tetlock (1998, 1999) has shown that experts also go to great lengths to maintain belief systems, even in the face of strong evidence that should force them to reconsider viewpoints. A consistent skeptic should obviously use discrediting information to modify beliefs.

Not only do we lack the time and universal expertise to be consistent skeptics, but our minds have a variety of built-in biases that directly hinder nonselective skepticism. These biases are especially powerful in defending long-held beliefs in which we have a strong emotional investment. Even the most ardent skeptic does not like to have his or her most cherished beliefs subjected to rigorous skeptical inquiry.

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22 Comments on "The Myth of Consistent Skepticism"

  1. BuzzCoastin | Jun 26, 2014 at 10:36 pm |

    if you read enough neuroscince stuff
    (Ramachandran, Saxs, Pinker et al)
    it is soon becomes apparent that the personality is created by brain wiring
    screw-up the wiring and it will change the personality
    it’s wired in or not
    “you” having nothing to do with it

    • I’m not so sure. I wasn’t half so skeptical as a lad. I entered the world of adults fairly sure that one collection of opinions were likely to be correct and another incorrect…mostly by virtue of early experiences biasing me in favor of underdogs in general. Decades later…experience has widened my skepticism to include anything and everything…including people or agencies that appear quick to agree with me or appeal to my emotions. I’ve been forced to reevaluate or discard a lot of once dearly held notions…because they couldn’t hold up to scrutiny and inquiry. I get called cynical a lot…because that level of distrust is hard to maintain and seem cheerful. Perhaps the inclination or faculty to adopt skepticism is hardwired by genes…but the adoption of it probably isn’t.

      • BuzzCoastin | Jun 27, 2014 at 1:32 am |

        once you how a skeptical attitude is created
        you can claim to not only be skeptical but also informed
        as to how you manufacture skepticism on demand

        I am by nature skeptical
        of even the thing I call myself

    • And, experience changes the “wiring.” They would lead you to believe that chemicals in our brains determine the way we think but they will also concede that the way we think may change the neurotransmitters in our brain. Thus, the pharmacological approach versus the cognitive/philosophical approach. Take the quick fix and stay the way you are or change the way you think and change who you are. Basic personality may be genetically determined but thinking is not. We are what we think.

      • BuzzCoastin | Jun 27, 2014 at 12:36 pm |

        so what you’re saying is
        you never read
        The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat
        and even though you know things change
        when the wiring changes
        you think “you” are seperate from the wiring

        • Yes, I did read that book. No, what I’m saying is that in the absence of stroke or other organic causes, science cannot distinguish if the chemicals cause dysfunctional thinking or if the dysfunctional thinking causes the chemical changes. All kinds of things can happen via strokes, illnesses, etc.

          • BuzzCoastin | Jun 30, 2014 at 12:39 am |

            brain damage can seriously rearrange a personality in such a way
            as to render it completely different
            is the ultimate test

            dysfunctional thinking is subjective and kultural
            brain damage is totally objective and reproducible

        • It appears that some headway is being made in this area:
          “Such knowledge is improving our state of mind too. In 2011 Hasse
          Karlsson, professor of psychiatry at the University of Helsinki, looked
          at 20 studies of brain changes induced by psychotherapy and concluded
          that we are moving towards a situation where we know so much about what
          psychotherapy does – how our subjective experience can be manipulated to
          change the physical structures of the brain – that specific types of
          psychotherapy can be used to target particular brain circuits. As Nobel laureate Eric Kandel has put it: ‘Psychotherapy is a biological treatment, a brain therapy.'”

          • BuzzCoastin | Jun 30, 2014 at 12:51 am |

            psychotherapy is pseudoscience
            just because wee know how a thing works
            doesn’t mean wee understand enough
            to meddle with several million years of evolutionary tinkering in the brain
            and “repair” it

            the best wee can do to change behavior
            is to work with the rules of perception and hope for the best

          • Yes. That’s what psychotherapy does: shifts your points of perception.

  2. I think we’re guilty of a certain degree of selective skepticism…if one defines true skepticism as staying in a permanent state of flux on all subjects. Eventually, bias sets in for even the most neutral person…if experience and evidence prompts them to take a side. Once a view or preference is adopted…it becomes a real challenge to re-examine it after the fact. Not every notion will stand the test of time. I’m not sure humans CAN be held to such a rigid ideal for skepticism…mostly because, just to function, we often MUST set the ‘auto-pilot’ and presume some things to be fact so that we can move forward and pursue goals. Eternal uncertainty could be as much a curse as false certainty…and on this I speak from unfortunate experience. I brood and vacillate far too much…in part because I fear the foibles that come with mistaken certainty. This leads me to avoid committing to certain ideas and concepts…even when action might be a much less harmful choice than inaction.

  3. What if objectivity were a myth?!
    *queue twilight zone theme*

  4. Simon Valentine | Jun 27, 2014 at 6:16 pm |


    • Adam's Shadow | Jun 27, 2014 at 9:23 pm |

      Simon, this is one of the rare times I think I’ve understood you, and that’s just because it was one word.

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