Politics and Skepticism
Posted by Daniel Gipps on February 13, 2010
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.