The Skeptical Method

When I was at SDSU getting my MA, I had to write a paper for my graduate seminar in linguistic anthropology. I chose to write about the question of whether or not Neanderthals were capable of speech. In researching the topic (using the card catalog, books, and bound journal articles – yes, we had the interwebs in 1999 but real research still had to mostly be done the old-fashioned way), I discovered that there was a great deal of disagreement on the topic. Some researchers proposed that, indeed, the evidence supported the hypothesis that Neanderthals had the physical capacity to speak in much the same manner as modern humans. Others proposed that, while there was a cultural basis for proposing language skill, there was not any physical/anatomical evidence that supported the speech hypothesis. Still others proposed that Neanderthals surely were capable of symbolic communication, but not at the sophisticated levels attained by modern humans. After sorting through the major arguments, I centered my paper around a discussion of each one, analyzing the strengths and the weaknesses, and ultimately concluding that while all of the major hypotheses were possible, more work needed to be done before reaching a conclusion, and that I found it likely that bits of each hypothesis would end up being validated (FYI – since I wrote that paper, a fossil Neanderthal hyoid bone has been discovered. This bone is what makes human speech possible. That, along with the presence in Neanderthal crania of a hypoglossal canal essentially identical to the one through which speech-related nerves connect to the brain in modern humans, makes the complex Neanderthal speech hypothesis into more of a true, scientific theory).

My linguistics professor lauded me for a thoroughly researched and well-written paper, but his final comment was this: “You can’t just write about what others think. At some point, you have to pick a theory and take a stand.” This bummed me out. I hadn’t taken a stand because no single hypothesis had completely convinced me. If I had been forced to choose, I would have sided with those who argued for complex Neanderthal speech, but I wanted to leave the options open. This, in my mind, is what makes the scientific method so brilliant: it leaves the options open.

For those of you in need of a refresher, the scientific method basically goes like this:

  1. A verifiable truth, or fact, is observed.
  2. A tentative explanation of the observed fact, or hypothesis, is proposed.
  3. The hypothesis is tested.
  4. If the hypothesis is disproved, it must be rejected as an explanation of the observed fact. If it is not disproved, then the hypothesis may be provisionally accepted.
  5. If a hypothesis survives repeated rounds of testing, and continues to not be disproved, then it gains the status of theory.

This requires several important corollaries to be properly understood. Probably the most important is that, for a hypothesis to be scientific, it must be testable and you must be able to disprove or reject it. This is because a scientific hypothesis cannot be proved – it can only be disproved. There are tons of hypotheses out there that are not testable, or at least, not testable with current technology. For example, you observe that the universe exists. You hypothesize that a supernatural creator designed the universe. This is a perfectly acceptable hypothesis, but it cannot be tested and rejected and is therefore not a scientific hypothesis. And that brings up another important corollary: the common vs. the scientific understanding of the words theory and hypothesis. The common understanding is that calling something a theory or a hypothesis means it is no better than a random guess: “Evolution is just a theory.” To which I answer, well, yes: evolution is a scientific theory, which means it has survived so many rounds of so many different kinds of tests, and never once been disproved, that it has attained a status almost as binding as physical laws. Another important corollary is predictive power. The best theories have predictive power, which means that you can reasonably expect to predict certain things to happen with the theory as your guide.

But finally, my favorite corollary of all: no matter how many rounds of testing your theory has survived, if it should ever fail, you have no choice but to go back to the drawing board and revise your original hypothesis. This, in a nutshell, is how science works, and it is how we are explaining and doing things now that were unimaginable even a few generations ago. Science builds on its mistakes. Science learns from its failed experiments. And the best scientists are the ones who are willing to go back and look again, and revise, expand, edit, and redraft their hypotheses and theories to make them even better at being predictive. (A cautionary note: evolution, in particular, is a scientific theory that its detractors claim is still controversial within the scientific community. Nothing could be further from the truth. Evolutionary theory, to me, is truly one of the simplest and most elegant scientific explanations ever proposed. It is the grand unifying theory of biology and all life science, and it undeniably works. What is still debated within the field of evolution are many of the more specific mechanisms of evolution’s operation. A great example of this is the debate over group selection vs. individual selection, which is robustly debated by no lesser thinkers than E.O. Wilson and Richard Dawkins. But neither Wilson nor Dawkins would ever think to propose that natural selection itself is in question. Although, as brilliant scientists, if it were ever disproved they would have to reject it!).

Ok, so now you should hopefully have a grasp of the scientific method, and I can get to what I really want to say in this post: I use the scientific method in my attempts to come to conclusions about almost every issue I come across. However, many of the more controversial issues that people find important nowadays are not amenable to the rigorous testing portion of the scientific method. Instead, I am calling this the skeptical method. It works in the same way as the scientific method, especially as far as the “disproving” portion is concerned. Here’s how it works:

  1. Encounter a controversial issue (say, whether or not to support the Affordable Care Act).
  2. Propose a tentative opinion of the controversial issue.
  3. Gather data against which to test the tentative opinion.
  4. Accept, reject, or revise the opinion as needed based on the data.
  5. Be prepared to revise the opinion based on new information.

As with the scientific method, the skeptical method has corollaries. First, controversial issues are controversial for a reason. They are often in conflict with people’s deeply held values. While I would consider these to be subjective, not scientific, they are still very important in the formation of the tentative opinion. Second, the skeptical method requires deep and careful critical thinking to be truly effective. This often takes work. If you are not willing to do the work it takes to support your tentative opinion, then it remains tentative. If you have done critical, careful research, and feel confident in the data you are using to support your opinion, then you might stop being tentative and become more confident of your opinion. But just like in science, you have to be able to support your hypothesis, and you have to be willing to consider new data. Third, people will very often disagree with you and marshal their own body of research in opposition to your opinion. It behooves the critical thinker to consider your opposition’s arguments. Even if you still disagree in the end, you will strengthen your argument by understanding the argument of the opposition… and sometimes, you might actually change your opinion. Even though this might seem like a defeat, it’s not. The skeptical method is not about personal victory; it’s about understanding the world. Part of that understanding involves the realization that sometimes – oftentimes – good, rational, moral people can have deep and irreconcilable differences of opinion. Sometimes, thoughtful, intelligent, compassionate people can take the same data and come up with completely opposite opinions. Sometimes, you will feel the urge to fling poop at that person’s head because you are so frustrated that they don’t seem to understand your beautifully reasoned and elegant opinion! Don’t do it. The true critical thinker accepts and understands that she may feel like she couldn’t possibly be more right, and there will always be someone who thinks she couldn’t possibly be more wrong.

I want to end by saying that I do find facts to be much more compelling than opinions. Daniel Patrick Moynihan once said that “people are entitled to their own opinions, but not entitled to their own facts.” If your opinion is supported by fact then I respect that. However, I am becoming more and more concerned by what appears to be a trumping of opinion over fact in our national discourse – a topic that deserves its own post.

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