Poets often express deep insights into human nature with far less verbiage
than scientists. Alexander Pope's Essay on Man, for example, is filled with
pithy observations on the dualistic tensions of the human condition:
Placed on this isthmus of a middle state,
A Being darkly wise, and rudely great:
With too much knowledge for the Sceptic side,
With too much weakness for the Stoic's pride,
He hangs between; in doubt to act, or rest,
In doubt to deem himself a God, or Beast,
In doubt his mind or body to prefer;
Born but to die, and reasoning but to err.
Pope has packed a lot into this refrain, but the final clause is an
important challenge to science: Is all our reasoning for naught, to end only
in error? Such fear haunts us in our quest for understanding, and it is
precisely why skepticism is a virtue. We must always be on guard against
errors in our reasoning. Eternal vigilance is the watchword not just of
freedom but of thought. That is the very nature of skepticism.
To my considerable chagrin, it was five years into the editing and
publishing of Skeptic magazine before I realized I had never bothered to
define the word or even examined how others had used it. Then Stephen Jay
Gould, in the foreword to my book Why People Believe Weird Things, mentioned
that it comes from the Greek skeptikos, for "thoughtful."
Etymologically, in fact, its Latin derivative is scepticus, for
"inquiring" or "reflective." Further variations in the
ancient Greek include "watchman" or "mark to aim at."
Hence, skepticism is thoughtful and reflective inquiry. To be skeptical is to
aim toward a goal of critical thinking. Skeptics are the watchmen of reasoning
errors, the Ralph Naders of bad ideas.
This is a far cry from modern misconceptions of the word as meaning
"cynical" or "nihilistic," although a consideration of the
word's history gives some insight into why its original definition has
shifted. The Oxford English Dictionary offers this as its first definition of
"sceptic": "one who, like Pyrrho and his followers in Greek
antiquity, doubts the possibility of real knowledge of any kind; one who holds
that there are no adequate grounds for certainty as to the truth of any
proposition whatever." This may be true in philosophy, but not in
science. There are more than adequate grounds for the probability of the truth
of propositions--if we substitute "probability" for
"certainty," because there are no incontrovertible facts in science
if fact is a belief held with 100 percent certitude.
[SIDEBAR: Skepticism means finding a balance between orthodoxy and heresy.]
Superstring theory may be uncertain, but heliocentrism is not. Whether the
history of life is best described by gradualism or punctuated equilibrium may
still be in dispute, but the fact that life has evolved is not. The difference
is one of probabilities, and this is reflected in a second usage of "sceptic":
"one who doubts the validity of what claims to be knowledge in some
particular department of inquiry." Okay, so we don't doubt everything,
just some things--particularly those lacking in evidence and logic.
Unfortunately, it is also true that some skeptics fall into a third usage of
the word: "one who is habitually inclined rather to doubt than to believe
any assertion or apparent fact that comes before him; a person of sceptical
temper." Why some people are, by temperament, more skeptical than others
is a subject for another essay. But suffice it to say that the reverse is also
true--some folks are, by temperament, habitually inclined to believe rather
than to doubt any assertion. Neither extreme is healthy.
Perhaps the closest fit to what we equate with a skeptical or scientific
attitude is a fourth meaning: "a seeker after truth; an inquirer who has
not yet arrived at definite convictions." Skepticism is not "seek
and ye shall find"--a classic case of what is called the confirmation
bias--but "seek and keep an open mind." What does it mean to have an
open mind? It is to find the essential balance between orthodoxy and heresy,
between a total commitment to the status quo and the blind pursuit of new