September 3, 2012

The Skepticism of Believers.


When your mind and heart are truly open abundance will flow to you effortlessly and easily.

Written by Rupert Sheldrake. Find out more about Rupert's new book Science Set Free here!

I used to think of skepticism as a primary intellectual virtue, whose goal was truth. I now see it as a weapon.

Research scientists, aware of the limitations and ambiguities of their work, rarely claim to have achieved certainty, and they are routinely subject to the skeptical scrutiny of their work by peer reviewers. Skepticism is an essential part of science. But it can easily be used to attack opponents.

Creationists opened my eyes. They use the techniques of critical thinking to expose weaknesses in the evidence for natural selection, gaps in the fossil record and problems with evolutionary theory. Is this because they are trying to find out more about evolution? No. They believe they already know the truth. Skepticism is a weapon to defend their beliefs by attacking their opponents.

The same techniques have been used for years by organized groups of skeptics to attack psychic research, parapsychology and alternative medicine. Their motives are primarily ideological; they, too, believe they know the truth already: psychic phenomena are illusory and mechanistic medicine is the only kind that really works.

Skepticism has even deeper roots in religion than in science. The Old Testament prophets were withering in their scorn for the rival religions of the Holy Land. Psalm 115 mocks those who make idols of silver and gold: “They have mouths, and speak not: eyes have they, and hear not.” At the Reformation, the Protestants deployed the full force of biblical scholarship and critical thinking against the veneration of relics, cults of saints and other “superstitions” of the Catholic Church. Atheists take religious skepticism to its ultimate limits; but they are defending another faith, a faith in science.

The use of skeptical weaponry is institutionalized within our legal and political systems. Defence lawyers are paid to be skeptical of the evidence for the prosecution, and prosecution lawyers of the defence. Opposition parties are skeptical of governments, and governments of other parties.

In a penetrating essay called “The Skepticism of Believers”, Sir Leslie Stephen, a pioneering agnostic (and the father of the novelist Virginia Woolf), argued that skepticism is inevitably partial. “In regard to the great bulk of ordinary beliefs, the so-called skeptics are just as much believers as their opponents.” Then as now, those who proclaim themselves skeptics had strong beliefs of their own. As Stephen put it in 1893, “ The thinkers generally charged with skepticism are equally charged with an excessive belief in the constancy and certainty of the so-called ‘laws of nature’. They assign a natural cause to certain phenomena as confidently as their opponents assign a supernatural cause.”

Skepticism is also an important weapon in the defence of commercial self-interest. The publication of the US Surgeon General’s report Smoking and Health in 1964, based on a review of more than 7,000 scientific studies, made it clear that smoking caused lung cancer and increased the risk of suffering from emphysema (caused by the destruction of lung tissue), bronchitis and heart disease. The tobacco industry responded by setting up the Council for Tobacco Research, which funded projects at more than a hundred hospitals, universities and research labs. Many of these studies looked for complicating factors that would muddy the waters. As an executive of the cigarette company Brown and Williamson put it in 1969, “Doubt is our product since it is the best means of competing with the ‘body of fact’ that exists in the mind of the general public.”

By the late 1970s the tobacco industry was facing scores of lawsuits in the United Sates claiming personal injury from smoking. In 1979, Colin Stokes, the former chairman of the R.J. Reynolds tobacco company, addressed a meeting of tobacco company executives to report on progress. The attacks on smoking, he told his audience, were based on studies that were either “incomplete… or relied on dubious methods or hypotheses and faulty interpretations”. Tobacco-industry funded research would supply new hypotheses and interpretations to “develop a strong body of scientific data or opinion in defense of the product”. Above all, it would supply expert witnesses who could testify in courts.

This strategy had worked in the past, and there was no reason to think it would not work in the future. Stokes boasted, “Due to favorable scientific testimony, no plaintiff has ever collected a penny from any tobacco company in lawsuits claiming that smoking causes lung cancer or cardiovascular illness.” In the end Stokes’ strategy failed, but it staved off legal cases and delayed anti-smoking legislation for years.

The tobacco strategy was adopted by numerous other industries defending toxic chemicals as lead, mercury, vinyl chloride, chromium, benzene, nickel and many more. David Michaels, who was assistant secretary for environment, safety and health at the US Department of Energy in the late 1990s, saw firsthand how corporate interests worked to defeat the regulation of beryllium, a chemical element originally used to increase the yield of nuclear explosions, and later used in the manufacture of electronic and other consumer items. 

 Following the discovery in the 1940s that beryllium can scar lung tissue, the Atomic Energy Commission established a safe level of exposure at two micrograms per cubic meter of air. By the 1990s it was clear that people were falling sick at levels far lower. When the Federal Government began the process of revising exposure limits, the leading US producer of beryllium, Brush Wellman, fired back with a series of reports suggesting that the physical properties of beryllium particles might influence its toxicity. Thus no action should be taken until these factors could be worked out more precisely. By “manufacturing uncertainty,” Brush Wellman staved off life-saving regulations. 

Emphasizing uncertainty on behalf of big business has become a big business in itself. Specialized product-defense firms have increasingly skewed the scientific literature, created and magnified scientific uncertainty, and influenced policy decisions to the advantage of polluters and the manufacturers of dangerous products. In fact, the science behind any proposed public health or environmental regulation is now almost always challenged, however powerful the evidence. The strategy of dismissing research conducted by mainstream scientists as "junk science" and elevating science conducted by product defense specialists as "sound science" creates confusion and undermines the public's confidence in science's ability to address public health and environmental concerns.

All these issues took on a global significance in relation to climate change. Organized attempts to discredit the growing scientific consensus began in 1989, with a report attacking climate science by the George C. Marshall Institute, which was originally established in 1984 to defend President Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative (“Star Wars”) against attacks by other scientists. The Marshall report blamed global warming on increased activity by the sun, discounting the effect of greenhouse gases. This is not the place to review the ongoing controversies, but the Marshall Institute and oil-industry-funded scientists have continually muddied the waters of the debate.

In practice, the goal of skepticism is not the discovery of truth, but the exposure of other people’s errors. It plays an essential role in science, religion, scholarship, business, journalism, politics, the legal system and common sense. But we need to remember that it is often a weapon serving belief or self-interest.

Rupert Sheldrake, Ph.D. is a biologist and author of more than 80 scientific papers and 10 books, including Science Set Free (September 2012). He was a Fellow of Clare College, Cambridge University, a Research Fellow of the Royal Society, Principal Plant Physiologist at ICRISAT (the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics) in Hyderabad, India, and from 2005-2010 the Director of the Perrott-Warrick Project, funded from Trinity College, Cambridge University. His web site is


Write Your Comment

  1. Sanjay

    Skeptics play a balancing role. It`s a selfless role usually. They may not know what`s right, they do know that they need to oppose the wrong. They correct the faults without getting much in return.

  2. Thinking Soul

    When TRUTH Beckons, NO one can be skeptical, Hence knowing the TRUTH is IMPORTANT and basically the TRUTH is NO ONE is Perfect(When they are compared to the ULTIMATE Being) and EVERYONE is Perfect (When They are COMPARED to the SOUL they TAKE ALONG everywhere).. SO Skepticism can be PART of JUDGEMENT, BUT NOT the part of KNOWLEDGE.. Having said that I believe Skepticism CAN work in scenarios you don`t want to be compared, hence you want to be the ULTIMATE and so it is not going to work... WHICH does NOT work in long run CERTAINLY works for a TIME FRAME. Things WHICH are used as a WEAPON always carry the risk of hurting the USER and that can always happen WHEN usage is done to attack only and NO defence... Rarely People Know of defense as a weapon which is ALWAYS better THAN Attack because while attacking YOU Forget about URSELF...

  3. Zac Prather

    Is the goal still truth?

More Comments
How AI Can Elevate Spiritual Intelligence and Personal Well-Being
September 17, 2024
Scroll Up