Re: Teaching Doubt

Some comments on the article “Teaching Doubt” by new atheist scientist Lawrence Krauss:

As a scientist who also spends a fair amount of time in the public arena, if I am asked if our understanding of the Big Bang conflicts with the idea of a six-thousand-year-old universe, I face a choice: I can betray my scientific values, or encourage that person to doubt his or her own beliefs. More often than you might think, teaching science is inseparable from teaching doubt.

Doubt about one’s most cherished beliefs is, of course, central to science: the physicist Richard Feynman stressed that the easiest person to fool is oneself. But doubt is also important to non-scientists.

I get the sense that for many new atheist types the terms “doubt” and “skepticism” are little more than signals to others that they are part of a group that denies the existence of God, the supernatural, and the paranormal. It is often also a signal that they see themselves as pro-science. But this same group is often intolerant of those who, from their perspective, doubt the wrong things.

Note the tension in how Krauss wants the public to doubt religious claims but is upset when it doubts scientific claims. He foolishly thinks that by promoting doubt the reader will end up doubting the “right” things but not the “wrong” things. This touches on a problem with many new atheists, namely, the tendency to tear things down but not to build things up. A positive epistemology of some kind needs to be promoted.

It’s good to be skeptical, especially about ideas you learn from perceived authority figures.

On the one hand, scientists are authority figures regarding science so you’d think we should be especially skeptical of them. On the other hand, Krauss is disappointed when the public is skeptical of claims made by scientists.

One conclusion we might draw [from studies suggesting ideology can hinder the evaluation of evidence] is that we ought to resist ideology in the first place. If we want to raise citizens who are better at making evidence-based judgments, we need to start early, making skepticism and doubt part of the experience that shapes their identities from a young age.

Skepticism and doubt are only good to the extant that they prevent one from holding false beliefs. They become a hindrance when they prevent one from holding true beliefs. Someone interested in the truth has to think about his epistemology carefully. There are no easy answers of the kind Krauss is peddling.

Meanwhile, earlier this year, an AP-GfK poll revealed that less than a third of Americans are willing to express confidence in the reality of human-induced climate change, evolution, the age of the Earth, and the existence of the Big Bang. Among those surveyed, there was a direct correlation between religious conviction and an unwillingness to accept the results of empirical scientific investigation. Religious beliefs vary widely, of course — not all faiths, or all faithful people, are the same. But it seems fair to say that, on average, religious faith appears to be an obstacle to understanding the world.

Surprise! The man who promotes skepticism and doubt is upset that Americans doubt certain scientific claims he believes to be true.1 And how scientific is it to reach such a broad conclusion about religious faith on the basis of a poll of Americans on four scientific claims? Is someone’s ideology hindering his evaluation of the evidence?

Consider Roy Moore, the chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, famous for refusing to remove the Ten Commandments from his courtroom wall: in a recent speech, he declared that the First Amendment only applies to Christians.

If you follow the link to MSNBC and watch the video you’ll see that Moore does not claim the First Amendment only applies to Christians. But how could anyone doubt a scientist?

A new generation is always more comfortable dispensing with old ideas than are its predecessors; in this sense, we are never more than a generation away from altering long-held beliefs. The battle for gay marriage, for instance, has already been won because it is simply a non-issue for young people. Is it naive to imagine that we can overcome centuries of religious intransigence in a single generation through education?

Earlier in the piece Krauss wrote: “A provocative novel that presents a completely foreign world view, or a history lesson exploring the vastly different mores of the past, can push you to skeptically reassess your inherited view of the universe.” I have to wonder what percentage of young people hold their view on gay marriage because it is a view they “inherited” from the culture around them.

We need to equip our children with tools to avoid the mistakes of the past while constructing a better, and more sustainable, world for themselves and future generations. We won’t do that by dodging inevitable and important questions about facts and faith. Instead of punting on those questions, we owe it to the next generation to plant the seeds of doubt.

The problem being that skepticism and doubt, by themselves, are tools of destruction. What we ought to do for future generations, what is good, and what is evil are moral questions. Doubt and skepticism alone are not up to the task of constructing a better future.

  1. For the record, I accept the view of mainstream scientists on evolution, the age of the earth, and the big bang. The “reality of human-induced climate change” is vague enough to drive a bus through, so, whether I accept that depends on what, exactly, is meant. 

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