Jun 07 2022

The Morality of Skepticism

A recent editorial by Tauriq Moosa, a South African writer focusing on ethics, makes a cogent argument that skeptical activism is a moral necessity. I don’t know Tauriq and his connection to skepticism, if any, but he writes as if from a perspective outside the skeptical movement. Rarely do I encounter outside commentary on skepticism that isn’t cringeworthy in its cluelessness. Tauriq does a good job, although his commentary could be taken further (which, of course, I will do).

His core argument is that when it comes to skepticism of fraud and fakery, silence is not a (morally defensible) option. He makes an analogy to Semmelweis, who first discovered that if doctors would simply wash their hands before treating patients many lives could be saved. Knowing this, he had a moral imperative to try to convince the world of this fact. Likewise if a skeptic has good reason to believe that a treatment or practice is actively harmful, they have a moral imperative to try to convince others of this fact. Homeopathy, for example, is worthless. If you rely upon it to treat a non-self-limiting disease you are likely to suffer harm. He writes:

If you don’t think the skeptic movement is about saving lives and providing ammunition to protect yourself against charlatans, then you simply don’t know the numbers of preventable deaths – ‘preventable’ if the information had been accepted by the adults concerned.

He then goes on to confront a common response to this type of skeptical activism – rational adults can make their own decisions, so let them be. Tauriq addresses this by focusing on the notion of “rational”. He correctly points out that rational decision-making requires accurate information, and so providing that information is a service. He also points out that when children are involved adults have a responsibility for scientific due diligence when making decisions on their behalf.

I agree with all of this but some points need to be amplified and extended. First, I am always puzzled by pushback to skeptical activism that is simply using evidence and logic to push back against usually blatant pseudoscience and magical thinking. The implicit (and sometimes explicit) assumption is that promoters of nonsense should be free and unfettered in providing dubious information, but skeptics should be restrained in providing science-based information. Even if you think that adults should have unlimited ability to choose nonsense, why grouse about giving them information to help make more informed decisions?

In fact, I would argue that freedom requires information. Feeding someone misinformation or disinformation is a method of taking away their freedom, because it distorts their free decision-making. This is easy to see when misinformation rises to the level of gaslighting, but it’s a continuum. Misinformation also does not require deliberate lying (although, again, it does make a morally cleaner case). Some people do deliberately lie, others simply fail to do intellectual due diligence, and others are themselves deceived, paying the misinformation forward. Further, there are vulnerable populations, such as those struggling with a severe illness.

Ethical philosophy and legal principles recognize this basic fact, that misinformation denies even a competent adult their freedom. This is why fraud is often illegal. If you lie to someone in order to get them to invest their money in a scheme that is certain to lose, while making a profit for yourself, that is considered investment fraud, and you can go to prison for that. And yet if you lie to someone in order to get them to choose a dubious medical treatment which is certain to harm them, while lining your pockets, that is called “alternative medicine”. (It used to be called health fraud, until it was successfully rebranded by the very charlatans trying to commit health fraud.)

Tauriq’s point could also be strengthened by acknowledging that we are living in an age of extreme weaponized misinformation. It’s one thing if people pass on misinformation because they don’t know any better, it’s another if that misinformation is carefully crafted and curated, woven into a compelling narrative, in order to fabricate an alternate reality. In some contexts this behavior is called a “confidence” scheme and its perpetrators conmen.

There is also an argument that I never hear anyone but experienced skeptical activists make – the downstream effects on society. Tauriq focuses on direct harm, which is understandable, but this focus does have an unintended consequence – when there isn’t demonstrable direct harm, it can seem as if there is therefore no problem. But this is far from true. The indirect harm may be orders of magnitude worse.

On an individual basis, indirect harm includes loss of finances, diverted attention and resources, opportunity cost, and the possible psychological harm of false hope. There is also tremendous downstream harm from convincing someone, essentially, that magic is real. This poisons their decision-making well beyond the particular snake oil that was being sold to them. They may embrace conspiracies, distrust proper authorities, eschew proven medicine, and be more vulnerable to a host of potential cons. Causing someone to believe in magic, or to just think unscientifically, is incredibly harmful.

On a societal level the harm is even greater. Allowing a cottage industry of snake oil (of any variety, not just medical) to thrive is beyond a mere moral hazard. It creates a well-financed industry who has power and motivation to weaken consumer protection laws, create an infrastructure of further misinformation, blur the lines of science, scholarship, academia, and professionalism, and essentially make it impossible for a non-expert to discern reality. In fact I believe this has already happened, funded by “what’s the harm” snake oil. Our society has been “Gooped”.

A modern, technological democracy is not stable, and may not be able to survive, let alone thrive, if its citizens cannot tell facts from “alternative facts”, and essentially have no mechanism for a shared reality. This is the real harm. We cannot effectively deal with a pandemic, not because we lack the tools but because too many citizens don’t trust experts. We are drowning in conspiracy theories, even to the point that a conspiracy-fueled mob tried to disrupt the peaceful transfer of power. We can’t protect our children from mass murder, even with basic safety regulations that most people agree with.

What’s the harm? Look around you.

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