The death of skepticism

quote-the-fact-that-a-believer-is-happier-than-a-skeptic-is-no-more-to-the-point-than-the-fact-that-a-george-bernard-shaw-266383A lot of women claim there is a “rape culture,” particularly on college campuses. A lot of blacks claim that there is a near universal police ethos that promotes the beating, and killing, of black men. Groups on the other side of the political spectrum have their own claims. For example, a lot of whites see hordes of short, squat, brown and unspeakably cruel Mexican criminals infiltrating our country.

What do these groups have in common? None is skeptical of their views, their motivations or their knowledge. They are fat and happy being credulous.

In short, if the society we want depends upon a lack of skepticism we are nearly there.


32 responses

  1. Judge, When were we not there. HUAC, Joe McCarthy and the fear of domestic communists, the Palmer raids, hostility to Jews and Catholics, the 1928 election and the rumor in the Midwest that if Smith won the Holland Tunnel would reach Italy so the Pope could sneak over, the current fear of Spanish was matched by the 19th century fear of the Irish language, the savage mistreatment of Mormons. Credulity and fear of the other have always been part of America. Learned Hand’s spirit of liberty, the spirit that is not too sure its right or Holmes’s reminder that time has upset many fighting faiths are part of America, but they are always in danger of being shouted down. We once had a real communist in NE, he was a veteran living at the old Legion Club on Dodge, he was tried by the post, expelled and lost his room..

  2. “What do these groups have in common? None is skeptical of their views, their motivations or their knowledge. They are fat and happy being credulous.”

    The same may be said of political parties. The same may be said of those who hold opposite views. Motivated reasoning is something that nearly everyone is guilty of, at some time or other.

    Buddhist saying: Cease to cherish opinions.

  3. I think a lack of critical thinking is equally to blame for intransigent positions. Why can’t we stand back briefly, look at something we see or read, and ask ourselves, “Can this really be true? Does this make sense?” The next obvious thing to do is to investigate with an open mind and to be ready to surrender a faulty position.

  4. Judge:
    This is similar to the Shavian quote that “Every person who has mastered a profession is a skeptic concerning it.” To what and to whom do we owe our credulousness? Perhaps to cultural changes such as 24 hour news cycles, unprecedented partisanship created by poisoned politics, and lonely internet bloggers sitting at kitchen tables in their pajamas. However, only a change in the culture can breed more skepticism. Unfortunately, I am skeptical about that happening.

  5. Robert,

    Me too. And that scares me.

    Frankly, the only skeptical thinkers any more are a few ordinary citizens educated years ago, a few journalists from the old school, a few academics who were schooled to eschew orthodoxies of all kinds, and lots of ordinary lawyers and judges whose lives depend everyday upon the maxim, “prove it.” Total ’em all up, and unfortunately those who think critically do not form a critical mass. I have no idea how to restore the virtue of skepticism as a principle to be lauded and followed.

    All the best.


  6. repentinglawyer,

    Thank you for the salient historical reminders.

    But, as the ads for stocks and bonds always warn, past performance is no assurance of future performance. I have no empirical basis for the following but my gut tells me: This time is different–critical thinking–skepticism–is passé just about everywhere and it is not likely to return.

    Back to history. Remember the Roman empire.

    All the best.


  7. When you pull a blue sock out of a sock drawer in a blind draw fifteen times in succession, you are entitled to conclude that most of the socks in the drawer are blue. Everybody knows someone who was the victim of a sexual assault in college, a lying or physically abusive cop, a corrupt D.A. (who let politically-powerful perps go), a flagrantly irrational and outcome-based judicial decision. And in many cases, the body count is out there for everyone to see.

    I recall going to one of my Congressman’s open houses. At the opening of the talk, he introduced a family of illegal immigrants. They snuck over the border and popped out seven bambinos (that you paid for and are supporting with your tax dollars). They were functionally illiterate, and neither spoke English. He was fighting deportation, as if it is somehow wrong for us to enforce our laws. All your classic Fox News stereotypes, in one neatly-wrapped package.

    At a certain point, the accumulated evidence is such that a number of these prejudiced views become rational. A half-way competent D.A. can indict Judge Wachtler’s ham sandwich, but brutal cops, unethical D.A.s, corrupt judges, and connected politicians are invariably given a pass. Docs won’t rat on docs, judges won’t rat on judges, and cops won’t rat on cops. The Eric Garner case is just another data point. As was the beating of Rodney King, and the shooting of Rumain Brisbon (a 30-year-old father of two). It adds up. And thanks to the Internet, we can examine the evidence for ourselves. We stop trusting the system and often, with good reason.

    That is not irrational credulity. It is a failure of the system that engenders rational cynicism.

  8. The Judge is criticizing reasoning from anecdotes. You’re doing nothing different, just positing that your anecdotes are better or more compelling than everyone else’s. That doesn’t make the Judge’s criticism any less salient.

  9. I would attribute it to the democratization of information. When we were young, we had to trust the gatekeepers of information by default. But the ‘Net changed all that. I don’t have to take anything on faith, and seldom do.

    By way of illustration, when I come across a questionable judicial opinion (a distressingly common occurrence), I can go on Pacer and read the complaint and briefs for myself, and more often than not, I reach the conclusion that the judge was dishonest. Judges have been doing this since forever (you will all recall Karl Llewellyn’s list), but now, we can catch them red-handed.

    I think that the blogosphere has had a net positive effect. Men like Greenfield, Gamso, and Volokh give us what journalists couldn’t: learned commentary. If you have ever attempted to educate a mere journalist on the rudiments of the law and read the results, you know of what I speak.

    I won’t say that fragmentation of information sources has not had a corrosive effect. A significant slice of society — arguably, with amygdalae larger than most people’s crania — are of the opinion that if Bret Baier doesn’t say it, it is not true. But this has always been true, except in the halcyon days when we all watched Walter Cronkite’s reports and Johnny Carson’s monologues.

    Back in the day, we had to trust in grand juries. Now, we can watch the video and decide for ourselves. It is that way across our society. It is not credulity we see, but robust and healthy cynicism.

  10. All I am suggesting here is that at a certain point, the weight of anecdotal evidence becomes sufficient to rationally support a conclusion.

  11. Judge After 5 years of Latin I refuse to remember the Roman Empire. On the other hand many feminists reasonably believe that college administrators have operated on a boys will be boys whiskey is the real cause mentality.which signals that certain conduct is trivial. The literature on police culture is large and long standing and when coupled with the total trust by the courts of cops might lead a reasonable person to believe that if police target black teenagers they will be foregiven, and deliberate targeting is an inevitable consequence of no broken windows policing and I did read the Unheavenly City.. As to fear of Mexicans, a part of white America has always been terrified of being swamped by somebody. See Buck v Bell.You are working too hard on your grumpy old fart , you have earned the part.

  12. Dear Judge,

    I cannot argue with your comments today. Let me critique word choice instead.

    There seem to be “a lot” of “a lot’s” in your short piece here,

    I weary of this phrase and its overuse by a lot of people. Ooops. But you get the point.


    PS: On a more serious note, may we all take a moment today to think about December 7, 1941?

  13. As a medical scientist, I have developed a one question test to scientific phoneys.

    I listen carefully to the dog and pony show and try to understand the proposal. I ask questions to find out how deep the idea is. And then I deploy the secret weapon: “So where does your theory/device/idea/etc not work?”

    The answer to the question doesn’t really matter. What I am listening for his how quickly the alleged scientist responds. No theory covers very bit of the data and no invention works for everything. For every scientist who has worked on a real problem there is at least one sticking point where the world refuses to conform to our elegant theory. This will irritate a genuine scientist to no end. If the alleged scientist is both a real and honest scientist — the answer spews forth immediately and with significant emotion. When I get that answer I know I am ready to deal with a fellow scientist.

    I propose a similar test for political hacks. Something along the lines of: “State and explain, but do not refute, your opponent’s best argument.”

  14. Most would you rather be confirmed than challenged. (See, e.g., Fox News and MSNBC.) You, my friend, are in the minority, and I am glad for the company.

  15. Perhaps this skepticism is lost in the Dunning-Kruger Effect, which I loosely translate as “incompetent thinking does not even realize it is incompetent”. (See

    But how to increase overall societal skepticism? I am reminded of what Alabama Football Coach Nick Saban said during a 60 MInutes interview: “High achievers don’t like mediocre people, and mediocre people don’t like high achievers.”

    Perhaps non-skeptics will never like (nor listen to) a skeptic. God help us all. If It exists ….

  16. The very premise of this article appears flawed on its face. Yes, it is true that a lot of otherwise brilliant people believe some objectively silly things, but that our justice system is a mess is not among them. As legendary NYPD whistleblower Frank Serpico writes in the NY Daily News:

    Was I surprised by the Staten Island grand jury? Of course not. When was the last time a police officer was indicted?

    This is the use of excessive force for no apparent reason on a guy who is selling loose cigarettes; what is the threat to your well-being? If a police officer’s life is in danger, he has every right to use every force in his means to defend himself.

    In the old days, they used to put a gun or a knife on somebody after a shooting. Now they don’t even bother.

    But today, we have cops crying wolf all the time. They testify “I was in fear of my life,” the grand jury buys it, the DA winks and nods, and there’s no indictment. …

    I called for, way back when before the Knapp Commission, for an independent investigative body. When I was testifying about police corruption, I saw very clearly how the DA can lead the grand jury in any direction they so desire. [Dec. 5]

    As you will recall, Your Honor, Greenfield and Gamso staked out the same proposition. They do not appear to be the overly-credulous type.

    It is the classic template for abuse of office: misbehaving priests, judges (“Operation Greylord”), cops, and prosecutors are spared punishment by colleagues and bosses who cover for them. In the Washington Post, former St. Louis cop Redditt Hudson adds:

    I don’t think better training alone will reduce police brutality. My fellow officers and I took plenty of classes on racial sensitivity and on limiting the use of force.

    The problem is that cops aren’t held accountable for their actions, and they know it. These officers violate rights with impunity. They know there’s a different criminal justice system for civilians and police.

    Even when officers get caught, they know they’ll be investigated by their friends, and put on paid leave. My colleagues would laughingly refer to this as a free vacation. It isn’t a punishment. And excessive force is almost always deemed acceptable in our courts and among our grand juries. Prosecutors are tight with law enforcement, and share the same values and ideas.

    It’s human nature. Priests molested young children because they could get away with it. Judges run roughshod over litigants’ constitutional rights because they can get away with it. Cops bully and even kill unarmed citizens because they can get away with it. Hudson writes:

    The number of people in uniform who will knowingly and maliciously violate your human rights is huge. At the Ferguson protests, people are chanting, “The whole damn system is guilty as hell.” I agree, and we have a lot of work to do.

    Skepticism is alive and well. We’re all skeptics. As are the people of Ferguson.

  17. GMF,

    Yes, we certainly like it when the talking heads confirm our own views. It is so much easier than thinking. All the best.


  18. You know what? I am god-damned sick and tired of all this “collective guilt” crap. Speak for yourself. “The whole damn system is guilty as hell.”??? Bull. Just more ivory tower bull. Wail away . . . .

  19. MOK appears to be shooting the messenger. Perfesser has provided several authoritative links that could either be refuted or challenged, but just saying it’s all “ivory tower bull” isn’t exactly a thoughtful response.

  20. Prefesser,

    You and I have very different definitions of skepticism. It might do us both some good to read up again on the Greek skeptics and the evolution of skepticism since then. I was going to write about that when I penned the post upon which you comment, but that seemed even too pedantic for me.

    All the best.


  21. I appreciate the quality of the preceeding comments.

    I do have a minor quibble with RGK’s phrasing. In what way is being a “woman” or a “black” or a “white” a particular side of the political spectrum one can be “opposite” of? I think I understand the point but the phrasing is quite awkward.

    That some or many of those espousing a position share a common immutable physical trait doesn’t mean the trait defines those in the group holding that position.

  22. One of the biggest hurdles facing a genuine skepticism today is the belief among many that skepticism means occupying the middle ground. This is a strange type of skepticism that believes that if the right is filled with Tea Haddists and the left boils over with Feminazis then the person who is skeptical of the grandiose claims of both sides can rest comfortable in the arms of the independent middle.

    Bullshit. Skepticism is not splitting the difference. Skepticism is following the truth where it leads one and the true skeptic is willing to be radical where the facts support radicalism and willing to support moderation when the facts support moderation. It does not mean–which we see everywhere today–a lurch into the arms of Hillary Clinton or Jeb Bush because Liz Warren and Ted Cruz are too frightening. That urge is not being skeptical–that urge is being namby pamby under the guise of skepticism.

    The middle can foist upon the mind a credulity every bit as devilish as the self-righteousness of extremes. It can lead one to the belief that averages are good simply because they are averages. When your head is in the oven and you feet are in the freezer on average you are not OK.

  23. As Bonhoeffer observed, there are degrees of guilt. To not speak is to speak. To not act is to act. Scripturally, sins of omission are as damning as sins of commission.

    The experts tell us that the system is broken. We can see for ourselves that the system is broken. Don’t we have an epistemic responsibility to conclude that the system is broken?

    In Songs of Distant Earth, Arthur Clarke spoke of “Lassan efficiency.” In essence, he asks: How broken does a system have to be before you try to fix it? I would respectfully submit that our judicial system has become dysfunctional enough to require a major overhaul.

  24. Judge,

    It’s hard for me not to be pedantic. What were once vices are now habits, I fear.

    Taken to its logical conclusion, Socratic skepticism is self-stultifying. If I can know nothing, I literally cannot judge anything. There has to be an irreducible minimum: a starting point upon which knowledge can be built. Descartes solves this problem in his cogito. “I think, therefore I am,” … for if I am not, it doesn’t matter what I think.

    My skepticism is, therefore, the functional skepticism of the scientist. You are faced with facts, upon which you build your theories. The theory that appellate judges are honest men and women who diligently apply the law to every dispute they are called in to referee is not only at odds with the raw data, but becomes risible in the face of that data. But if the raw data changed, the theory would become viable again.

    These principles are universal. Human nature appears to be a constant, and amenable to prediction. (I invoke judging as a vehicle for illustration here because that is what you do and hopefully, what you can relate best to.) And like individuals, our institutions consistently act in accordance with what they perceive to be their self-interest. You’ll see an occasional Frank Serpico, but groups are less moral than individuals.

    Cops and DAs tend to protect their own. As do judges, doctors, priests, and tenured professors. This theory best fits the facts, and works as an effective tool for prediction. But if the facts change, your theories have to change with them.

  25. When next I am right, would you please use “Thank you very much” to convey your appreciation?

    All the best to you, too, Judge. And may Santa be very good to you this year (at least as equally good as you have been this year).


  26. Well said, Kenneth. “Extremism in the pursuit of liberty is no virtue … and moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.” ~ Barry Goldwater

    If you follow the truth where it leads, you probably won’t like where you end up.

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