One of the memorable presentations at the 1997 Skeptics’ Conference was David Novitz’s assessment of whether organised scepticism has a place in a liberal democratic society.

Suppose that we are all under the influence of a drug that induces amnesia, and as a result we cannot remember anything at all about our personal circumstances. We don’t know whether we are rich or famous, powerful or weak, what language we speak, how intelligent we are, what educational or professional qualifications we have, what race or religion or society we belong to. But suppose, too, that we are all ideally rational human beings, each of us aware of what we should like to secure for ourselves and for those we love. In this amnesiac condition we are locked into a room, and asked to consider a single problem: how ought available benefits and goods to be distributed in any society?

It is with this scenario that John Rawls begins his book A Theory of Justice (1971, Oxford University Press), and the answer he gives to this question — an answer that tells how people behind what he calls this “veil of ignorance” would choose to distribute the benefits and goods in any society — amounts to his theory of justice.

Rawls argues that since people behind the veil of ignorance won’t know how much power they have, what their situation is, or what metaphysical beliefs they will have, they will opt to organise the state in a way that guarantees “liberty of conscience” — the freedom to hold and propound beliefs without fear of ridicule or persecution. This makes some sort of sense because we will not know what beliefs we may come to have or how sincerely we will hold them. And, so Rawls supposes, we will recognise the acute discomfort of being ridiculed or persecuted for beliefs that we cannot help holding and that we hold with sincerity. Hence we would all prefer a state that is neutral as between conflicting philosophical, religious, and moral beliefs.

This reflects a view common to all liberal theories of the state: individuals should be free to organise their lives around such beliefs — and the only constraint Rawls places on this freedom is “the common interest in public order and security”, which I assume includes the prevention of what Mill calls “direct harm” to other citizens.

Alleged Implications for the Skeptics Society

This view of the liberal state is widely held. If it is right, one has to ask whether the Skeptics Society and the public role it plays conforms to its ideals. For certainly at first glance — and perhaps at second, third and fourth glance as well — the society is an institution that is publicly intolerant at least of a select range of metaphysical beliefs and ideals. It criticises, and sometimes ridicules them, through the media, and through the feared (and frankly terrifying) Bent Spoon Award, which is meant to shame and embarrass people into abandoning their beliefs, or at least adopting a more circumspect attitude towards them.

Worse, the society (although “not into censorship”) campaigns to prevent certain ideas from being taught, and given “equal time” schooltime — eg. creationism. In other words, the society strives publicly to upset the neutrality of the state where at least some of our metaphysical beliefs are concerned.

This can have serious consequences. It may mean that people will be excluded from public office or from jobs because of their beliefs. It may mean people can be publicly ridiculed, or ostracised. Both amount to forms of persecution that have characterised ideological intolerance throughout the ages.

The Proper Objects of Public Skepticism

Does this show the society is illiberal — that its practices and programmes are inconsistent with the ideal of the liberal state? The answer to this question must depend on the beliefs and ideas the society targets. We need to enquire closely into the proper objects of public skepticism before we can denounce the society as subversive of the liberal pluralism. If the society targets all the beliefs with which it disagrees, and subjects them to public ridicule, it runs the danger of persecuting people because of their religious or other affiliations. And to do this is to deny “liberty of conscience” to individuals. If, however, the society makes too few beliefs the objects of public skepticism, it is likely to undermine its major purpose and function.

So what are the proper objects of public skepticism? It would be wrong to take all false beliefs — still less all doubtful ones — as fair game. This would cast the net too widely, would arguably include most religions, and, given the sometimes derisive style and caustic strategies of the society, could amount to persecution.

Nor is much purpose served by arguing that the concern of the society is to attack only those beliefs that are harmful. For it is a fact that no belief is directly harmful. What does the harm are the actions a belief may lead to. But the trouble with defending public skepticism in this way is that it’s not just false or groundless beliefs that lead to harm. There are true beliefs — grounded in science — that can be used to harmful effect in society. Yet these are not the object of skepticism. Skepticism involves disbelief — and it’s dishonest to advocate the disbelief of a harmful idea if it is true. Harm, therefore, is no ground for skepticism. Any belief, true or false, can lead to harm. And whether or not it does, has more to do with the values and attitudes of the believer than it has to do with the content, shonky or otherwise, of what is believed.

Perhaps, then, skepticism is called for in the case of beliefs that are both false and potentially harmful. This sounds promising, but will not altogether do — partly because any false belief is potentially harmful. Religions generally advocate false beliefs, and many of these do little more than console the faithful. Yet there is always the extremist who will turn the innocuous into the dangerous. But public criticism and ridicule of all such beliefs must involve the public criticism and ridicule of religious beliefs, and if Rawls is to be believed, this contradicts a basic tenet of the liberal state. We need to narrow the scope of skepticism further, and direct a skeptical attitude to false beliefs that are not merely potentially harmful, but are either actually or very probably harmful — those that currently do palpable harm, or else are adjudged likely to do harm, and do so because they are false.

To criticise publicly beliefs of this sort is to act to protect people from harm. Any defensible moral theory will tell you this is justified. More importantly, public skepticism directed at beliefs of this sort is fully consistent with the ideal of a liberal and pluralistic state.

When we delineate the proper objects of skepticism in this way, it becomes clear that the Skeptics Society can tolerate many religious beliefs, since although arguably false, most are also arguably harmless. Still more, the society can consistently advocate a liberal state which is neutral as between conflicting metaphysical beliefs, while at the same time advocating that the state should not be neutral if there is the strong likelihood that such beliefs will be used to harm others.

So, for instance, the recent and ongoing history of racism suggests the state should act to halt the propagation of false, pseudo-scientific, views about racial groups — because we know they have so often been used to harmful effect.

What is Harmful?

It would seem, then, that the aims of the Skeptics Society can be made to be consistent with the ideal of a just or a liberal democratic state — as construed by Mill and Rawls. But the society will remain consistent with the ideal of a liberal state only for so long as the object of public skepticism is those false beliefs that are very likely to, or that actually do, engender harm. But what harm, some might ask, does Uri Geller do? He is an illusionist with pretensions, but if people are taken in and teased by those hugely entertaining pretensions, does it hurt? And what about firewalking? Who does it hurt to pretend I have supernatural powers that allow me to skid painlessly across glowing coals where anybody else’s feet would be reduced to smouldering stumps?

One could trivialise the case for the skeptic by maintaining that to wilfully engender false beliefs is to harm the person one deceives. But it is easy to see that this is not true and, in any event, it has illiberal consequences — most especially the consequence of making freedom of belief a thing of the past. Better to look to the facts to determine whether anyone has been harmed by pretensions of this sort.

The answer, of course, is a resounding yes. People are regularly harmed by the false claims others make concerning their powers of foresight, of healing, mystical powers to control natural forces, and so on. That is why one is right to take a skeptical attitude to the Gellers and the firewalkers of this world.

Epistemic Responsibility

There is another general reason why skepticism of this sort is morally desirable. It has to do with the fact that knowledge is a vitally important commodity on which our lives and well-being depend.

Most of what we know is not the product of our own inquiries. We depend extensively on others for the knowledge we live by, so that we form part of, and tap into, a community of knowers — an epistemic community — that shares what it knows and that guides us and others in our various endeavours.

People can be more or less responsible in the way in which they generate the beliefs and the ideas which are the currency of an epistemic community, and on which all of us depend. An epistemic culture can be responsible or irresponsible. Pharmaceutical firms, like physics and sociology departments in universities, and departments of Naturopathy and Homeopathy in Aoraki Polytechnic, all subscribe to certain practices of inquiry, but not all are equally responsible in the way they generate the information they disburse for our consumption.

Part of the reason for the existence of a Skeptics Society is to advance the right sort of epistemic culture; it is to attempt, through public pressure, to ensure epistemic responsibility — to ensure proper, well-tried, procedures are adopted in generating the knowledge-claims that we use to organise and live our lives. A failure to do so can seriously mislead; although I stop short of saying that it must always seriously mislead. Whether or not it does — whether it merely comforts the bereaved and the dying or consoles the deprived, or whether it prevents proper endeavour and is likely to cause injury, loss or death — are empirical questions to be decided in each case. There are no rules here; certainly not the rule that all false beliefs are fair game.

The Impartial Skeptic

Mere falsehood, then, does not justify public skepticism. Crucial, as well, is the fact that particular beliefs and epistemic practices are harmful or are likely to be harmful. This, plus the fact that criticism of bad epistemic practices helps preserve epistemic responsibility in a community of knowers, seems abundant moral justification for the existence of the society — that is, for the public criticism of received doctrines and putative knowledge.

But there is a caveat. Such public criticism has to be impartial. One must be willing to subject any putatively false and harmful idea to critical scrutiny — not just those ideas that one finds politically or ideologically uncongenial. For unless the society is seen to be impartial in this way, it will not be able to command the confidence of the public it addresses. Instead, it will be perceived as a front for the ideas that it finds attractive — the political ideology and professional interests it supports.

To criticise only those ideas that are seen to be “politically correct”, or those that are seen to be “alternative”, will bring many to think of the Skeptics Society as reactionary body that is more intent on peddling its own view of the world than it is on a dispassionate enquiry intent on exposing intellectual fraud.

One can see why this view is held. In public at least, the society does a lot to criticise the current fads of the politically correct; it is devastatingly critical of alternative therapies, of so-called recovered memories, of the money-spinning talents of Uri Geller, healers, and spiritualists. It functions as a rearguard movement in defence of some of the doctrines of Enlightenment thought.

But it does less to criticise the questionable racial theories of those who wrote The Bell Curve; it does little to criticise the spurious science of economics on which much of the arguably harmful, perhaps false, economic thinking in this country is based, or received medical practices which are under-researched and of dubious value. It says little, if anything, about the strange deterministic claims of evolutionary psychology. And it has nothing publicly to say about the theory of Social Darwinism that apparently justifies the public neglect of those who cannot cope in this society.

If the society is to retain its moral credentials, it will need to be seen to function in the way the Consumers’ Institute does. The latter considers products with a mind to the interests of the consumer; not with a mind to its own economic interests. Were it to be motivated in its judgement by its own financial interests, we would rightly think it partial, and see it as a front for its own economic inclinations. As a result, it would lose our confidence and fail in its mission.

In just the same way, the Skeptics Society will need to look critically at any putatively false and harmful idea in order to establish its epistemic and moral credentials – and it will need to expose such ideas, without fear or favour, when they are lacking. If the society fails in this respect, it will act as little more than a ginger group. It will act with diminished epistemic responsibility, and will fail to acknowledge in its own practice the standards of epistemic and moral responsibility that the society sets for others.

1 John Rawls, A Theory of Justice (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1971), pp.205-210.

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