The Selective Skeptic
“Wherever we go, there seems to be only one business at hand — that of finding workable compromises between the sublimity of our ideas and the absurdity of the fact of us.”
-Annie Dillard, Teaching A Stone To Talk, 1982
I am currently occupied with two hobbies — rock climbing and ice cream. The former is spiced with height, the latter flavored with sugar and saturated fats. I can tell climbing stories that will make your hands sweat but I’ll never make you quake talking sundaes. And yet the latter should strike fear in your heart and arteries. Once, I stumbled upon a fat rattlesnake while approaching a cliff in Wyoming. More often, I’ve slurped milkshakes while weaving wildly through smoggy traffic in LA. Only one of these is actually fear-worthy.
Natural science has a problem. The march of science gives me the feels but conflicts with my gut feelings. I know we should be less afraid of flying and more afraid of doorknobs. Squeaking bats and stinging bees, oh my, are just pollinators that keep us flush with mangos and cotton. Pee in the backyard pool and everyone’s fine, but toss in a lead paper clip and kids are poisoned. Science is apparently on a mission to upend intuition. It feels that way anyway.
We can’t fully trust science either. Science is honest about this — it’s built on a foundation of skepticism. Science overturns and refines itself relentlessly, and only the most robust results stand the test of time. Even then, a scientific truth is often at best relative — something we know with 99% certainty. Feelings go to 100%. That’s one louder. Why should I trust the latest study that shows coffee’s bad for you? I should have stopped reading after the study that said coffee was good for you. It’s enough to make me want to call bullshit. Which is fine as far as the latest study goes, since the latest study is probably wrong.
But for all its apparent reversals and transparent uncertainties, science slouches painstakingly towards well-tested truths about the natural world. Science built the earthquake proof house I live in. It saved me from appendicitis when I was 11. It enabled me to publish this piece, call my Dad on his birthday and go rock climbing safely on the weekend. And although science feels counter-intuitive, we routinely and fearlessly consume its fruits daily. Every time we use a car, a mobile phone, an anti-histamine, a muffin pan, a microwave, surgical anesthesia or an article of clothing, we are implicitly embracing the edifice of understanding which science has built. We trust the professional grade skepticism of science to increasingly resolve the way the world works and build functional technology based on those truths. I really can’t use the internet to disagree with that, but I can scrawl on the wall of a cave if I want, as long as I don’t use geology to find it.
Which brings me to selective skepticism. After my Dad almost died from cardiac arrest, he embraced the open-heart surgery which saved his life. This is because the doctors were able to give him the probability of different outcomes, as well as the probable consequences of foregoing surgery, based on science. He didn’t question the science of heart function and the accuracy of the EKG’s measuring his heartbeat — he learned what he could, trusted the doctors and made a decision based on the given probabilities. When I looked at the weather for this weekend and saw an 80% chance of thunderstorms, I didn’t attack the science of meteorology and the accuracy of satellite imagery in order to sell my rock climbing plans to my partner — I made a decision based on the given probability: movies and ice cream.
We are under no obligation to accept scientific results that have stood the test of time, but when one is comfortable with washing machines, catalytic converters and orthopedic surgery, yet claims specific skepticism of the science on vaccines, evolution, climate or the health impacts of GMO’s, I call bullshit. It’s pure manure to selectively question science around a single issue then embrace it whole-heartedly in other venues. It’s equally excremental to cherry-pick results from the disparaged field to bolster an argument against that field. And a conspiracy theory that scientists are systematically defrauding us is textbook bullshit.
The reality is that, despite how much the organic vegetarian in me would like to believe that GMO’s are bad for my health, or the irrepressible optimist in me wants to believe I can have my coke and eat it, the science doesn’t support those conclusions. Science is sometimes going to tell us things we don’t want to hear, and because most of us are not scientists, we don’t really get to weigh in. Admittedly, it’s not exactly an empowering situation. In an alternate universe, maybe scientific truth is democratic — everyone gets to have an opinion and physics compromises so everyone gets a little of the gravity they want. But in our world, each strand of science is an ongoing process of observation and testing by a group of highly trained individuals evaluating and building upon each others’ work. Our job is to decide what to do with that given information.
Science lumbers towards truth better than any other system we’ve tried. And while the natural sciences are not monolithic, they are interconnected. If I’m dead set on arguing that humans didn’t evolve from other animals, I also sacrifice understanding of how diseases develop resistance, how plants get domesticated and what the appendix is. Or, if despite the research I’m certain that vaccine ingredients cause autism, in addition to avoiding omelettes, tattoos and rock climbing equipment I’ll need to establish new methods for determining what drugs do and don’t do. Taking a selectively skeptical position on a tested truth is a big responsibility — either I’m a scientist in the field with a testable contrarian hypothesis, or I’m a Galilean game-changer with a new way of explaining how stuff works that’s better than the science I rely on 24–7. More likely, I’m just cherry-picking a strange result and promoting a conspiracy theory to collapse the field because I don’t like what I’m hearing.
Look, I don’t like the results either. I’d like to eat way more ice cream than I already do. In a perfect world we’d frack our way to super-cheap jet fuel so I could take more climbing trips to Thailand, and we’d all have resistance to iocane powder. Zika wouldn’t cause birth defects, seas would rise for no man, and big asteroids would always give the earth a pass. Science has been irritating us for a long time, and it’s not going to stop. On the other hand, you have a good chance of living to 100, flying around in an autonomous drone and witnessing the discovery of alien life forms. We’ll never fully reconcile our feelings with the facts, but them’s the breaks. There is an inevitable rift between the sublime anthropocentric experience of our daily lives and the virtually alien complexity of the actual world. And so, when scientists discover and confirm life on Europa, a cancer vaccine, an immortal jellyfish or a graviton, you can be sure I’ll indulge my inner WTF. But I won’t resort to selective skepticism. That would be bullshit.