Friday, November 7, 2008

Skeptics and Politics

I'm not going to spend this post writing on where McCain went wrong and Obama got it right. There will be plenty of time for that later. But since so much of this blog has been dedicated to the 2008 presidential election, now that it is over I thought I'd spend a couple of posts describing what I envision this blog to be about and why it's called Skeptics and Politics as well as why I sign off as the Rational Moderate. Today is on the Skeptics and Politics portion. 

Skepticism comes in a few different categories. There is the simple doubt that we experience when we hear a tale of something extraordinary such as a coin landing on it's side. It's not impossible, but we are likely to wonder if the person telling the tale isn't making it up. This type of skepticism doesn't actually happen that often as we are prone to believe what others say because we generally are truthful. If someone tells us it's raining we usually just grab our umbrellas and don't bother looking out the window. But as the claims ratchet up to being more uncommon we start to doubt the believability of the claims. 

But Skepticism as a movement, rather than just a particular state of mind, comes in two forms which I'll call Ontological Skepticism and Scientific Skepticism.
1) Ontological Skepticism is where one doubts, well, everything. Ontology is the study of reality or being, and so a skeptic of this sort doubts any and all propositions that she might hear. This is an extremely hard position to take as you would have to doubt your ability to do it as well as doubt its correctness and so usually this is found in some esoteric religion. 
2) Scientific Skepticism is more about epistemology (the study of knowledge) than ontology in that it questions claims about reality along the lines of "how can we know?" It can give negative claims about questions of ontology, but it cannot truly make any positive ones, but only probabilistic ones. The skeptics in this camp answer that the best method we have for knowledge is the scientific method which works in such a way as to remove many of the biases we might have. For example, many people believe in a phenomenon call "hot hands" were a particular athlete goes on a streak of making  incredible shots in row that wouldn't ordinarily happen. Sadly for those sports fans, there actually is no such thing. What constitutes "hot hands" falls within the statistical probability for that particular athlete. For example, when flipping a coin there is a 50/50 chance of it landing heads or tails, but given enough flips it is extremely probable that you will hit a streak of many heads or tails in a row. Does the coin have "hot hands?" 
This is also the area where logical fallacies come into play. These are mistakes in reasoning. I've talked about a couple in the past, such as the Hypocrite Fallacy and the Argument from Authority Fallacy, but there are plenty of others. 

Skeptics and Politics
The Skeptics part of this blog is in the latter camp. What I hope I have done and will continue to do is point out the errors in reasoning that occur in politics as well as in other areas of our lives. It seems to me that many of the arguments that happen around politics are founded on either faulty premises or mistakes of reasoning from sound premises. I've heard skeptics argue that they try to stay out of political arguments because they are ultimately value based and so cannot be looked at using the same methods that one uses to evaluate fact based claims. I disagree. This assumes several things 1) that the values are equal in that they have the same objective amount or are purely subjective and so have an objective value of zero, and 2) that values are evaluated in a completely different way than facts. The first is, I think, an open question. It's not enough to just claim that values are subjective rather than objective because they feel that way, one must argue for that position and it could be the case that there really is an objectively right and wrong thing to do. The second is wrong because we can and should evaluate values in a similar way to how we evaluate facts, namely negatively. Just as a skeptic takes a claim such as the existence of Leprechauns and asks questions about what would it take for this creature to exists, we can evaluate value claims based on what it would take to make them exist. 

David Hume wrote about the gap that exists between factual claims and normative claims ("is" claims and "ought"claims) and that just because something is a certain way does not mean that it should be that way. This is what leads many skeptics to abandon discussing politics under the same scrutiny as the Loch Ness Monster. But the flip side of the coin is that "ought implies can." To make the claim that someone should perform some action or value some outcome requires the possibility that they factually can. If I say to you, "You should fly out the window and rescue that cat from the tree," my statement holds no weight because you cannot fly out the window. So, if certain values or ends are raised in politics there is a way we can skeptically analyze them and hopefully come up with a better way.

The Rational Moderate

1 comment:

Peter said...

I wish the media analyzed politics this way. They, as a whole, seem to follow there own beliefs in reporting things as news-worthy more than actually considering the beliefs of politicians and what the politician himself is actually trying to say, and not just as a soundbite.