Putting Some Skeptical Mantras to Bed

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Jonathan Jarryhttps://jonathanjarry.com/
Jonathan Jarry is a science communicator for the McGill Office for Science and Society and the co-host of The Body of Evidence podcast. He was trained and worked for many years in the biomedical sciences.

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I was introduced to skepticism a decade ago and with it came a rich trove of sayings and comebacks that sounded quite smart at the time. With experience, I began to revisit these quips and question whether they were really true or useful after all. I want to explain why I’m choosing to clear my vocabulary of these skeptical witticisms.

“The plural of anecdote is not data”… no more

There is of course truth behind this saying when viewed under the right light. So many testimonials for this herbal product or that energy therapy are compiled and served to us as evidence of their effectiveness. The more aunts and uncles and neighbours and coworkers report feeling a little bit better after ingesting sugar pills, the more our brain is willing to accept this as proof of efficacy. What skeptics like to remind the purveyors of these anecdotes is that whispers, rumours and subjective reports are not enough. The bar to be cleared is higher.

But the problem with the expression, often used as a mic drop moment, is that anecdotes are data. They are not rigorous data, nor are they definitive or overwhelmingly convincing, but they are data points. If a medical doctor begins prescribing a new medication, and patient after patient returns complaining of a bizarre skin rash, it would be foolish for the doctor to kick them out of the office by citing that “the plural of anecdote is not data.” There may very well be something there that requires an investigation.

It would be more accurate to say that anecdotes are not a reliable form of evidence because they don’t control for so many variables that can obscure what is really going on. That’s why we do scientific experiments like clinical trials: to remove as many of these variables as we can and to figure out the best answer to the question we are asking. This longer explanation requires me to hold on to the mic instead of dropping it to the floor and walking away, but I think it’s more conducive to a constructive conversation.

“Facts don’t care about your feelings”… no more

I remember hearing strong echoes of this in the early years of my journey into skepticism: facts don’t care about your feelings, a slogan promoted by right-wing commentator Ben Shapiro. This adolescent form of skepticism seems to delight in drawing a line in the sand between people into “woo-woo” who trust their “fee-fees” and the rational freethinkers who put their emotions aside, in admirable Vulcan fashion, and simply follow the cold, hard evidence. In a debate with someone whose beliefs we think arise from emotions, it became fashionable to put them down with this skeptical mantra. A variant that I probably used in the past is that science is true whether or not you believe in it.

Again, it is true that facts are impervious to feelings of anxiety, and it is also true that the spheroidal shape of the Earth remains unaltered by the beliefs of Flat Earthers. But this self-serving slogan is not very useful if our goal is to convince people that they hold inaccurate beliefs. Because if we are going to use pithy rejoinders, let me offer one I prefer: when was the last time you changed your mind after being called an idiot? If someone’s ideology is wrapped up in dense emotional layers, simply stating that facts don’t care about feelings is unlikely to move them in your direction. As the editor of this magazine has written before, feelings don’t care about facts. By addressing people’s values, social investments and anxieties, we stand a better chance of opening them up to the realisation they might be wrong than if we simply dismiss their emotional reality as evidence of weakness in the face of the almighty facts.

“Question everything”… no more

One of the core principles of modern skepticism is to question everything. We can use the lens of skepticism to question alternative medicine, to criticise bad scientific studies, even to denounce fallacious statements made by politicians. This phrase, “question everything” (sometimes “doubt everything”), is certainly appealing and I’ve used it in the past… but I am realising more and more that it cannot stand alone.

A type-writer and paper - the words on the paper read "Fake News!"

Questioning everything without having in place a system of media literacy and information vetting to draw from is a recipe for conspiracy thinking. The COVID-19 pandemic serves as a clear example of where the mindless questioning of everything can lead people. Questioning the cycle threshold values obtained by molecular tests for the coronavirus led many to believe these tests were useless and simply churning out false positive results. Then, of course, we can visit hospital parking lots and question the narrative that intensive care units are nearing capacity. We can question the speed at which vaccines were developed, the safety of wearing a mask, even the true purpose of these lockdown measures and what the government may really be planning with all of this. Asking a million questions without subscribing to a framework for evaluating evidence—what good skepticism helps provide—can easily lead people down the conspiracy rabbit hole, which is why I don’t think simply inviting people to question and doubt everything is particularly useful… or harmless.

“What a great example of the Dunning-Kruger effect”… maybe no more

As a skeptic, I love a good moment where a phenomenon baffles people and I can come in and slap a scientific name on it. That weird brain fart over here? Yeah, that’s been studied and this is its name! Skepticism done! But these skeptical incantations can easily escape scrutiny and simply be taken as fact even when the evidence behind them is not as robust as it could be. The Dunning-Kruger effect, for example, was first described in a 1999 paper as an interesting discrepancy. When data was graphed a certain way, researchers could see that people who did very poorly on a test tended to think they did much better, and people who did really well slightly underestimated their true score.

This observation was replicated by other scientists and it soon took on a life of its own, getting twisted by journalists and skeptics in a pop-cultural game of telephone. Soon, the Dunning-Kruger effect became the reason why dumb people didn’t know they were dumb, and also why ignorant folks were so arrogant and doubled down all the time. Of course, that’s not what the effect was ever about… but even in its original form, there are reasons to be skeptical of the very existence of this alleged bias in our thinking.

I recently spent many weeks looking into this effect, collaborating with academics who understand statistics far better than I do, and becoming more and more convinced that the Dunning-Kruger effect, as originally described, might simply have been a statistical artefact. This is still controversial, both in the academic literature and in the feedback I received for my article, but in and of itself it should open our eyes. Even in skeptical circles, we easily adopt these science-based mantras but we don’t always check back to see if these ideas still hold up after they were initially published. Another example is the backfire effect, the claim that pushing back against misinformation backfires and reinforces belief in the falsehood, which I still see being quoted even though it seems to have been more or less debunked.

Being an evidence-based skeptic is hard because it asks of us to not only examine the claims made by fringe communities but also to examine our own. The skeptical movement is unfortunately not immune to the promotion of unquestioned comebacks and slogans. Since we like to use them to convince other people to be more skeptically minded, I think it behooves us to examine these witticisms once in a while and make sure they really are as true and valuable as we’d like them to be.

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