The best skeptics are gullible

Our culture groups science with concepts like skepticism, logic, and reductionism, together as a cluster in opposition to creativity, holistic reasoning, and the “right brain.” This network of alliances feeds into another opposition our culture accepts, that between art and science. I’ve always looked down on the whole thing, but sometimes I feel lonely in that.

The opposite of skepticism is credulity, a readiness to believe things. For my part, I try to communicate a vision for science in which skepticism and credulity are equal and complementary tools in the production of scientific insight. An imbalance of either is dangerous, one for increasing the number of wrong ideas that survive (the “miss” rate) and the other for increasing the number of good ideas that die (the “false positive” rate). Lots of both is good if you can manage it, but people allow themselves to identify with one or the other. As far as I’m concerned, the cost of confining yourself like that just isn’t worth the security of feeling like you know who you are.

Skepticism and credulity are equally important to my intellectual hygiene. It’s very valuable, on hearing an idea, to be able to put up a fight and pick away every assumption it rests on. It’s equally valuable, on hearing the same idea, either before or after I’ve given it hell, to do everything I can to make it hold — and the more upside-down I can turn the world, the better. Sometimes that means readjusting my prior beliefs about the way the world works. More often it means assuming a little good faith and having a little patience with the person at the front of the room. If some superficial word choice makes you bristle, switch it out with a related word, one that you have permitted to exist. If you have too little of either, skepticism or credulity, you’re doing injustice to the world, to your community, and, most importantly, to yourself.

Don’t take my word for it. Here’s a nice bit from Daniel Kahneman, on working with his longtime colleague Amos Tversky.

… perhaps most important, we checked our critical weapons at the door. Both Amos and I were critical and argumentative, he even more than I, but during the years of our collaboration neither of us ever rejected out of hand anything the other said. (from page 6 of his Thinking, fast and slow, which is like having a user manual for your brain)

I’m not saying that there isn’t enough credulity in the scientific community. There’s a lot, it’s dangerous, it should be treated with respect. In a good skeptic, credulity is a quality, not a lapse. Making room for it in the scientific attitude is the first step toward recognizing that creativity is, and has always been, as basic as analytic rigor to good science.

Arvai J. (2013). Thinking, fast and slow, Daniel Kahneman, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Journal of Risk Research, 16 (10) 1322-1324. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/13669877.2013.766389