Uncertainty in Skepticism

A couple of weeks ago, Daniel Loxton wrote a really interesting post on Skeptiblog titled, “Never Say Anything that Isn’t Correct.” In it, he makes the case that skeptics should work super, extra hard to get their facts correct when acting in a public role. Although it’s impossible to be perfect in this, there is some responsibility to do your homework if you want to be seen as a good resource and skeptical authority. And, he quotes Spiderman, so that’s a win in my book.

That same week (they must be conspiring) Jeff Wagg wrote “Skeptic, Be Not Proud” on JREF’s Swift blog. In it, he points out that skeptics have a right to be proud of the fact that they do their homework and get the facts right, but that we should “CROW IT FROM THE RAFTERS” when we ARE wrong, because surely we’re going to get things wrong from time to time, through our own mistakes or if we’re weighing in on a field that isn’t as well settled as we had thought.

From this, skeptics have two solid tools for combating pseudoscience and anti-science: striving for correctness and admitting when you are wrong. I’d like to add a third important tool to that toolkit, and that’s the ability to say, “I don’t know.”

One of the growing pains of becoming a scientist is becoming comfortable with uncertainty. Scientists have to push the boundaries of what we know and test questionable hypotheses all the time. We work with theories and data and instruments that are on the cutting edge. We ask questions to which no one yet knows the answer. And I say that this is a growing pain since many of us came through an education system where there always was an answer, and we could get to it easily.

Being able to say, “I don’t know” is similarly important for teachers at all levels. Unlike with research, this may not be because no one knows, but because a teacher has such a wide range of topics to cover that he or she cannot know them all with incredible depth. At some point, one of your students is going to ask a question to which you do not know the answer, and you’re on the spot. And it’s quite alright to say, “Well, I don’t know, but I can look into it.”

In order to foster the credibility of public skeptics and the movement as a whole, I think it is important for skeptics to use both of these instances of uncertainty properly. We all have opinions and biases, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But when asked for “the skeptical viewpoint” of some topic or event, it’s okay to admit that you just don’t know. Maybe you aren’t familiar with the literature, or maybe it never came across your radar before. Either way, it’s okay, even advisable, to withhold judgment until you can find out where the data lie. That has to be distinguished from “we don’t know” or “no one knows” which is certainly a valid answer for some questions (i.e. What is dark energy?).

So, relax, fellow skeptics. As much as we info-junkies want to know everything, we cannot and will not be able to weigh in on every topic and controversy. Even if you are pretty well educated on some arena (say, UFOs), this doesn’t mean you are going to be able to solve every case (like when your friend describes some lights he saw in the sky… Explain that, skeptic!) on the spot. It’s just fine to say, you know, I’m not sure, let me look that up because that sounds interesting. But remember that just because YOU can’t explain something, this doesn’t mean that there isn’t someone out there who can.

4 thoughts on “Uncertainty in Skepticism

  1. When I did public speaking at conferences and in front of a classroom full of computer application training students, I always admitted that I didn’t know the answer to a question that baffled me. It’s ALWAYS better to admit that you don’t know than to either make something up (as too many people in the same position do) or guess (without qualifying it as a guess). Giving someone the wrong answer is far worse than giving them no answer at all.

    I should also mention that admitting you don’t have all the answers makes you more human to your audience. They can never accuse you of being a “know-it-all”! Even if they’re coming to you for your expertise, there’s nothing wrong with admitting you don’t have a specific answer. You get extra points for finding the answer and getting it to the person who asked promptly. Your extra effort to get the right information shows that you care about the topic and the person who wanted to know.

  2. Brilliant post. Clear, concise, and appropriately humble.

    Being willing to admit that what we believe may be wrong is the benchmark I use to determine just how rational someone is and the degree to which they “walk the walk” with skepticism and science.

    It’s good to be reminded that the willingness to “I don’t know” is as, if not more, important.

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