Radio Freethinker

Vancouver's Number 1 Skeptical Podcast and Radio Show

Politics and Skepticism

Posted by Daniel Gipps on February 13, 2010

Politics is one area in desperate need of more skeptical inquiry. The problem is that it can be difficult to look skeptically at government policies and laws. The reasons for this are numerous: party support, ideological or moral beliefs, lack of information, lack of time, and many others. Another one of the biggest problems is that many of these decisions are either primarily economic, or partly economic, and there are economists who will tell policy makers anything. There’s an old saying that there are as many different economic models as there are economists and politicians are no doubt thankful for this.

Is there good evidence behind this claim about the Olympics? A skeptical look is the best way to find out. / Daniel Gipps

Proof is an important concept in skepticism. Skipping over the philosophical problems of whether we can actually prove anything (not that it isn’t an interesting topic, but isn’t relevant to the topic at hand), we have the problem of determining whether something is proven to be, for all intents and purposes, true. In science, there is a rigorous standard of proof. Large amounts of evidence must exist for a theory to be considered proven. It can also be disproved with even a small amount of evidence that contradicts it. The standard of proof within the scientific community is therefore very high. This is also similar to the legal concept of “proof beyond a reasonable doubt” which applies to criminal law. Someone cannot be sentenced guilty to a crime unless there is enough evidence to remove any reasonable doubt that they may be innocent.

High standards of proof work for science, and exist for crime to reduce the likelihood that innocent people are punished. However, not everything relies on such high standards of proof. Our civil law system, that is issues such as contracts, property rights, divorce and even charter challenges work on a different standard. This standard is known as the balance of probabilities. What it basically means is that whatever is most likely is considered “proven”. Without this relaxation of standards, civil law would be almost useless. It is just too difficult, or even impossible, to prove many things “beyond a reasonable doubt”. The problem is, skeptics too often hold scientific standards of proof for things that simply can’t be proven to that level. Politics is definitely one of those areas.

One example of this that I am sure is fresh in everyone’s mind is the 700 or so billion dollar bailout of the largest U.S. banks by President Bush and continued by President Obama. It would be impossible to prove their true motivations behind the bailout beyond a reasonable doubt. Was it done purely to keep the economy afloat as both have stated numerous times, or was it primarily to keep their wall street friends from suffering the consequences of their reckless actions? Neither of these can be proven absolutely. Even if a secret recording of backroom talks surfaces, it would not be enough to absolutely prove anything. There is no way to know if those involved were speaking any more or less truthful on the tape than in public. All that can be done is to look into what is more likely based off of other factors such as campaign contributions. In this case, one needs only to look at the major campaign contributors for Bush’s 2004 presidential campaign(hint: it reads basically like a list of corporations who have received bailouts) to see the balance moving towards helping out his buddies rather than the nation as a whole.

Another problem is that political opinions generally have ideological or moral roots. A libertarian is likely to see a government managed economy as morally bad, whereas a socialist likely sees it as morally good. Neither of these positions is wrong in any true sense, they are both based off of the subjective morals of the individuals. A skeptical argument can not be made directly attacking their moral positions, as neither is objectively correct. A skeptic can however look at evidence, or make logical arguments about the consequences of either position. As an extreme example, if a politician tables a law that would free all murderers and give them, and future murderers, $100,000 each, a skeptic would likely point out that there will be consequences to that decision. The most obvious being that it gives an incentive to others to murder. Obviously this is quite ridiculous, but it does highlight how skeptics can question public policy separate from ideology.

Another problem in looking skeptically at public policy is a lack of information, or a difficulty in getting information. Many bills that are passed are pages long, written in legal jargon, and made purposefully vague. It can be very hard to skeptically critique what a law might do when it is vague, or gives great discretion to secondary bodies (e.g. University Endowment Act giving great control to the UBC Board of Governors to pass rules). These problems make it difficult to properly argue what the law actually does. One example is the Vancouver Charter amendment increasing in fairly vague terms the city’s ability to go after signs. The city insists that it is only to go after ambush marketing, but many groups such as the BC Civil Liberties Association have argued that the potential exists to do more. I will not get into the argument here, but it does demonstrate some potential problems for skeptics. If the wording of a law is vague (as many laws are), should skeptics look for the consequences of the extreme interpretation or a more moderate interpretation? For now I won’t answer that question, as I eventually want to write a well researched blog post on it.

I have found a strong distaste for politics within the skeptic community and I feel that it is a missed opportunity for skeptics. Laws put into place by our politicians have enormous impacts over our everyday lives. The latest scientific finding doesn’t affect us nearly as often (I intend in no way to diminish the importance of science, I simply mean to point out that while interesting, most scientific findings only really matter to a very select few). If skeptics want to have an important impact on people’s everyday lives, they need to stop ignoring public policy and start looking into the consequences of political decisions being made every day.

5 Responses to “Politics and Skepticism”

  1. Michael said

    I feel that I must take exception to your recent assertion that “Politics is one area in desperate need of more skeptical inquiry.” The public trust in our governing bodies is at an all time low. It didn’t take the 911 event, and its subsequent conspiracy theories to bring us all to this pass. There are some of us who even stopped trusting the government all the way back to the Watergate scandal. There are still others who have reasons that reach further into history. Most skeptics are aware of the conspiracy theorists, Alex Jones and other fear mongers of his despicable ilk. It seems not unlikely to me that if we go down that road people will have trouble distinguishing us from them. I think that people will believe that by demanding the “truth” we have something in common with the conspiracy theorists. This is not to say that there is no need for a skeptical view of governmental policies, laws, etc. Yet I believe that the expression: “politics makes strange bedfellows” applies here. My contention is that there is a definite need for transparency in our government, and yes politicians should be held to a high standard of truth. However, I feel that such a commitment to becoming political watchdogs is just too far from what I consider to be our mandate. In order to maintain credibility, we must never give the impression that we are in any way politically biased. You may feel that I am being too narrow in my definition of “a skeptic”, or (shudder) am promoting a fundamentalist view. Let me account for my reasoning thus:
    CSICOP, and its founders were committed to “The scientific investigation of claims of the paranormal”. Today, skeptical organizations have grown and expanded to include secular humanism, investigations of spurious claims of medical miracles (i.e., Quackwatch or 10:23), “UFO’s, pseudoscience, etc., etc., and etc. I will even go so far as to approve of our involvement in the recent Anne Mitchell case. You will remember that she was arrested and charged after blowing the whistle on a doctor who was selling his “herbal remedies” to his patients, as well as indulging in other disreputable practices. He was promoting scientifically unproven remedies, and as such was fair game. However, if the doctor in question had been guilty of medical malpractice, or practicing without a license, then although his crimes may have been heinous or morally reprehensible they would have been somebody else’s business, like the AMA or similar watchdog. I contend that the same reasoning applies to the concept of skeptical activism. If a duly elected government body creates a policy whereby tax dollars are spent promoting homeopathy or “energy healing at a distance through quantum entanglement”, then we are obligated to go after them with every resource at our disposal. Yet if we go charging madly off in all directions, tilting at every beastie that comes within our field of view we put the skeptical movement at risk.
    Science must be dispassionate, objective, free from political influence (okay, okay- but a guy can dream can’t he?). My fear is that by entering the political arena we lose the public perception of being unbiased. The facts may be that nothing could be further than the truth. But that is politics. If we come out against the policies of one faction, we are perceived as being allied with its opponent. I believe that we also risk something greater: our focus and credibility. There is a perception that being a skeptic is the same thing as being a cynic. There are those who feel that we are against everything, and believe in nothing. I think that if we continue to broaden the scope of that which we must challenge, we run the risk of seeming to be a bunch of cranks. I think that it is well to remember that it is not enough to be right: truth loses its potency when no one is listening.
    I am concerned for the skeptical movement if it becomes too loosely defined. It would be well to remember why it began in the first place. I can only speak for myself when I say that it was a sense of moral outrage that drew me here. The “woo woo” forces are as hard at work now as they were in the days of Houdini. People are still losing fortunes to “psychic readers”, they are still dying from quack remedies and snake oil, and they are still victimized by bible thumping flim flam artists. I can claim no special place of privilege, no right to speak for my generation. Similarly, I have no right to believe that I can speak to the generation now coming to power. It has always been the prerogative of the latest generation to push the boundaries, to make changes, to adopt new paradigms. I am the last person to suggest that we do not need skepticism in political activism. However, hasn’t that always been part of any politically active group? I cannot think of an activist (or anarchist for that matter) group that is against truth, that wants less transparency or would do away with political accountability.
    I think that a good way for us to determine whether a controversial topic is worthy of our attention is to ask ourselves if it is something that James Randi would pay a million dollars for if proven to be true. An exceptional claim of paranormal ability would qualify; the Vancouver Olympic Committee’s spending habits would not. We need more people who experience moral outrage over things like homelessness and drug addiction, misuse of public funds, abuses of power and political corruption. Yet these examples are simply a different species than the woo woo beast. Hopefully I will not be stretching this metaphor past the breaking point when I say that these are two very different animals, and should not be caged together. It is even possible that the same person sees to it that they do not escape and run rampant. It has been said that evil flourishes when good men people fail to act. So yes, a political activist should be skeptical- it comes with the territory. A skeptical activist on the other hand must aim for the heart of the beast: those who would exploit and degrade the weak, the ignorant and the desperate.

  2. Daniel Gipps said

    Thanks for your well written and thorough reply. I’m not going to reply to every point but I’ll touch on a few of them.

    You point out that people are seeing the government as increasingly untrustworthy, and that may be valid, but not trusting the government is different than being truly skeptical of their policies. Yes, many of these people may get sucked in to conspiracy theories, but that doesn’t mean some of the issues they are talking about don’t have some validity. For instance, I am far from a “911 truther” but I certainly think that there are still some unresolved issues surrounding the Bush administrations negligence before, and willful skewing of facts afterwords to support their agenda that need to be better investigated.

    You certainly have a valid point that if skeptical groups get into political issues they may lose their supposed objectivity, but as skeptics we need to counter that. We need to argue that one can be against policies because they are bad policies even if they support the ideological reason behind it. One great example of this is progressives in the U.S. arguing that the health care bills stalled in congress are bad, even while supporting the ideology of government supported health care. Many episode ago on our show we talked about education, and about how evidence (at least what I have seen) supports policies that increase competition between schools, teachers, and other staff. Competition improves educational outcomes. This doesn’t come from my personal beliefs, but from evidence by social scientists. This idea that I can’t be objective (or at least as objective as I could be about some sort of pseudo-scientific claim) is ridiculous, and we as skeptics should fight those that argue this.

    I also have to disagree with your claim that VANOC’s spending habits cannot be put to the same basic test as a paranormal ability. Certainly it might be a lot harder, but ultimately one can look at the evidence and logically look at claims made about the Olympics. Obviously skepticism alone can’t say whether the Olympics are worth having, as there are too many subjective elements in that, but this is no different then our ability to say homeopathy is bad. There is just as much subjectivity in that claim, as there is in the claim that the Olympics are bad. Just because science tells us that homeopathy is completely bunk, that does not mean that it is bad in an objective sense, it may very well lead to subjective well being for people. Politics is no different. The “job” of skeptics is to look at the objective consequences. To condemn political skepticism because it relies too much on subjective beliefs is to ignore the fact that our condemning bunk medicine isn’t based on anything radically different.

    • Michael said

      I think that I will follow your lead here, and not address your reply in a point by point basis. In fact, I will go further than that: I shall attempt to find the places where we agree with each other. I have only been reading blogs for a relatively short period of time. Yet I believe that I have been able to ascertain one thing at least: skeptics can be a contentious lot! We seem to excel at pedantic nitpicking, and love the art of debate. One wonders if this is good thing or not. I must admit that I believe it to be an excellent way of discovering the truth, and a good method for discovering further supportive evidence for a position. At one time I would have relished a stirring debate, and enjoyed sharpening my wit against the armor of a worthy opponent. Perhaps it is an age thing with me, but such things do not hold the same interest for me that they used to. I realized one day that in my zeal and effort to prove myself right, I virtually ignored what my “opponent” had to say. I always found it easier to speak louder and longer than anyone else, and count that a victory. I do hope that I am outgrowing that at last, although I am sure there will be an occasional relapse.
      We do seem to be in agreement over the need for distrust of government. I won’t go so far as to discuss the relative merits of conspiracy theories. The trouble with a theory which may contain a kernel of truth is that one must traverse a Byzantine labyrinth in order to discover it. Quite frankly, it just makes me tired! If I may go off on a tangent for a moment, I find too many conspiracy theorists and pseudo scientists try to promulgate a grand theory of everything. I occasionally listen to Coast to Coast AM, believing that one should keep their friends close and their enemies closer. I frequently here the crank of the week expounding a theory that starts with some scientific anomaly, an unexplained phenomenon or a partly understood scientific hypothesis (usually involving quantum mechanics or magnets). They then will blather on, leaping from unsupported conjecture to pure fantasy, involving everything from homeopathy to the lizard people, in an effort to account for every bit of woo there is. Yet as demented as these individuals turn out to be, I hesitate to use words like good or bad to describe them or their theories. I believe that the correct descriptor would be “unproven”. Phrases like “there is insufficient evidence to support your assertion” can take the sting out of the statement. Perhaps I am just a coward politically, but I don’t like to hurt anyone’s feelings.
      It is this part of my nature that I would say is an important driver for what I say and do as a skeptic. I would like to think that perhaps as a Canadian I inherited a politeness gene, but that is obviously patent nonsense. Regardless, this is why I prefer to avoid subjectivity in my various ranting and ravings. I am naïve enough to think that if we can disprove the theory and practice of homeopathy, then we have done all that should be expected of us. It is then the task of a responsible government to take the appropriate action. Unfortunately, I just can’t see the how the same methodology used to disprove bad science can extend to political decisions or Vanoc spending habits. Please don’t take that statement as one challenging or refuting your claim that these are things which skeptics have an obligation to address. I mean it in the literal sense, in that I am not likely to understand no matter how well or persuasively you explain it. I am perhaps a too literal minded person, and therefore more comfortable with things that can be measured, tested, quantified, repeated etc. I will leave the “soft” sciences such as psychology, economics and politics to more subtle thinkers.

      At the risk of going off at another tangent, I want to go on record saying that I believe the Vancouver Winter Olympics to be a good thing. Bringing representatives from all nations here for the purpose of friendly and healthy competition and the continuance of an ancient and noble tradition is a good thing for the species. We may all be less apt to war against our neighbors if we get together regularly with them for a game of hockey. (Although in all honesty I must say that I would feel better if we won more medals doing it!). In terms of the Olympics per se, I am making a positive value judgment. However I am utterly appalled and disgusted at what I can only call the evils that attend this noble event. One BILLION dollars spent on security alone! The city incurring crippling debt the effects of which will be felt for years, the callous mistreatment and displacement of the homeless, the political slush funds, the monumental waste, the crass commercialism: these are all examples of the corruption which attends the event. The fact that the majority of people whose tax money helped pay for this party cannot afford the price of an invitation infuriates me. These are all bad things, yet I still contend that it is not the job of the skeptics to take on this beast. No, some other knight in shining armor (who would likely be skeptical by nature anyway) should be tasked with attacking this particular dragon. However, as I said before, if the Olympic Committee started promoting miracle quantum health water, we would of course be compelled to join the battle.
      I guess that what it really comes down to is how do we define the role of the skeptic in our society? I believe that this is one case where we must acknowledge that there is a lot of subjectivity involved. There are a myriad of websites and blogs that engage in spirited and open debate over the truth of one issue or other. Those that are involved in the debates generally back up their assertions with references and data, and do a much better job at it than I could ever hope to. I am a mere armchair skeptic, a philosopher of sorts, perhaps even a dilettante. When it comes to the purpose and future of the skeptical movement, I can honestly only offer my own opinion. In my opinion, it is not “The “job” of skeptics .. to look at the objective consequences.”. This is not to say that the consequences of something like psychic surgery should be inconsequential to us. On the contrary, they should be what motivates us to investigate it! When I see the human cost of paranormal fraud, my sense of moral outrage compels me to act. Yet I can understand that you feel it to be incorrect to compartmentalize your motivations and actions, in this case the actions being political activism. I prefer to focus on extraordinary claims: this is the lens through which I perceive the good that I can do in the world. Perhaps, in a further effort to find common ground with you I would say that once that evidence has been gathered it is the task of the more confrontationally inclined skeptic to pick up the torch and run with it. (We can’t seem to get away from the Olympics at all today can we?) I have already rambled on far too long (again), so let me try to sum it up thus: In my opinion it is the task of the skeptic to investigate and report, their motivations for that being moral outrage and inability to tolerate injustice. These same feelings may motivate a person to political activism. I believe however that without some element of paranormal claims or etc., that said activism exists outside the purview of the skeptical movement. If one would argue that a government’s policies are bad, the reason had better be that it is in conflict with scientifically proven facts. Okay, I will shut up now.

  3. […] February 26, 2010 Daniel Gipps Leave a comment Go to comments On the Radio Freethinker blog I wrote about the difficulties of looking skeptically at politics, and about why, despite the difficulties, […]

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