The Necessity of Scepticism Contra Cynicism

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by Neil Godfrey

Mention scholarly research into a matter that someone feels deeply about while holding contrarian or conspiracy theory views, and one is likely to be told that the academies are filled with institutional bias that compels them to ignore or hide or tell untruths about “the real facts” of a matter. Sometimes the criticism can go deeper than certain perceptions of institutional bias and target the scientific method itself:

The scientific method is what is wrong with the world

I mentioned once to Harold, the friend mentioned earlier who falls constantly for quack medical remedies and diagnostic methods, that the scientific method is based on a demand for evidence and that he should think about being a little more scientific (i.e., skeptical) about unverified claims. Harold replied that “the scientific method is what is wrong with the world and with people like you.” I suppose what he was saying is that by being skeptical I am cutting myself off from various mystical and creative aspects of the human experience. That is certainly a possibility, but I think that Harold may have been overreacting to the word “skepticism” (and to my implicit criticism of him) and assuming that I meant something other than what I actually meant.

His cynicism, ironically, contributes to his gullibility

I believe that Harold is confusing skepticism with cynicism and thinks that I am saying that one should never believe in anyone or anything. In fact, Harold is probably much more cynical than I am (he sees the evil hand of conspirators everywhere). His cynicism, ironically, contributes to his gullibility, in that he champions alternative medicine in part as a way of saying “screw you” to the more mainstream medical establishment. To my mind, a knee-jerk reaction of “no” (the cynical stance) is no more justified than a knee-jerk reaction of “yes” (the gullible stance) and the essence of skepticism is nothing more than saying “I will maintain an open mind but I want to get a better understanding of the truth of the matter before I commit myself.” However, the evidence is often ambiguous and incomplete, and the skeptic is someone who holds out for a higher and more rigorous standard of proof (and of one’s own understanding) than the fact that you like someone or want what he says to be true.

Our author is zeroing in specifically on quack remedies and “spiritual forces” and “mysterious agents” in the world but the same reasoning applies to anyone seeking “confirmation” that governments of the western world have come under the powers of conspiratorial elites who are using the fear of Covid-19 as a pretext to introduce controls that will eventually lead to new totalitarian tyrannies. The result of that kind of thinking is either a complete disengagement from the political processes or attempts to sabotage them: either way, positive action to defend and deepen democratic processes is the loser.

Perhaps what Harold was really saying is “I pity people who do not believe in magic.” Skeptics are people who believe that the laws of nature and probability underlie all phenomena, and are dubious about claims that there are realms of functioning that are immune from such laws. Harold definitely believes in magic (the real, not the conjuring, kind) and his evidence for this belief is likely to take such a form as “I was thinking about an old friend and the next thing I knew I got a phone call from her.” Harold is not likely to be persuaded by the argument that “you thought of 500 other things or people during the same day without such a congruence, but you are focusing on a single congruence that confirms your belief in magic and then holding it up as proof that it couldn’t have been a coincidence.

The passage addresses belief in magic but the same “intellectual laziness” applies to beliefs in conspiracy theories and any other belief that avoids the drier texts based on the scientific methods of research. Conspiracy-theory believers may consider themselves more astute, sceptical and informed than others but in fact the opposite is true.

one can absolve oneself of any obligation to master complex reality by passing it off to forces that are unknowable

Belief in magic is an intellectually lazy stance to take, as one can absolve oneself of any obligation to master complex reality by passing it off to forces that are unknowable. Belief in magic contributes to gullibility as one can be too easily influenced by misleading external realities or superficial explanations. Just as Harold pities me for not being more intuitive, I pity him for not being more rational. People who eschew skepticism are people at the mercy of charlatans, bogus experts, and false claims. Although I generally admire and like people who are trusting more than people who are distrusting, I think trust needs to be tempered with an understanding that it can be misplaced. Blind trust can be a formula for disaster, as countless stories in this book illustrate. One needs to be alert to warning signs of untruth, whether or not it emanates from conscious deception. To refuse to heed those signs, and to refuse to ask for proof when proof is needed, may be to put oneself in harm’s way. 

On reading the above passage I am reminded of little questions that arose along the way of my journey into a religious cult many years ago. Little points of errors in facts seemed to be only minor and unintentional glitches in the literature I was reading. I should have stopped and stood my ground and demanded to find out why and how such “little errors” were there in the first place. It might have led me to discover behind all that glossy, free literature was an institution that was geared towards psychological manipulation.

The following depicts the end result of what I have come to call “ideological” or “principled” thinking. Now there are good ideologies and there are good principles to live by. The problem is when people espouse “ideological” or “principled” ideas that at some level treat those principles as more important than the full lives of real people (either by thinking of most people as stupid or as faceless numbers to be manipulated in a power and control game) then we have the seedbed of vicious totalitarianism.

Trofim Lysenko

An example of how cynicism is compatible with gullibility can be found in the life of Joseph Stalin, the ruthless dictator who ruled the Soviet Union through periodic murder sprees for several decades. In a review of Simon Sebag Montefiore’s (2005) Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar, Ian Buruma (2004) described Stalin, and the equally murderous ruler of China, Mao Zedong, as extraordinarily cynical, that is motivated by power rather than Communist ideology, and generally distrusting of everyone, including family members. There was one area, however, in which both Stalin and Mao were overly trusting, and that had to do with agriculture policy. Driven by an emotional commitment to the notion that Marxism–Leninism had made possible a “creative Darwinism,” both men “appear to have been completely taken in by the crackpot science of Trofim Lysenko” (p. 5). Lysenko’s experiments in high-yield wheat proved to be a complete disaster in both countries, “but these failures were blamed on ‘saboteurs’ and ‘bourgeois scientists’, many of whom were killed, even as people were dying of hunger in far greater numbers than ever. Such things might not have happened if Stalin and Mao had been complete skeptics. But they were gullible as well as cynical, and that is why millions had to die” (Buruma, 2004, p. 6).

Greenspan, Stephen. Annals of Gullibility: Why We Get Duped and How to Avoid It. Westport, Conn. : Praeger Publishers, 2009. http://archive.org/details/annalsofgullibil0000gree. pp 181-182


If Scepticism Does Not Come Naturally. . . It’s Worth Fighting For

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by Neil Godfrey

Whatever you do, don’t just believe everything you’re told; every statement should be taken apart and scrutinised before, reluctantly, you accept that it might conceivably be true.


When a reader once tried to advise me that New Testament scholars of Christian origins were not unique among historians of the ancient world for their resistance to sceptical approaches I failed to appreciate the extent to which he was right. By no means is virtually the entire field of ancient history plagued by the same malaise in the same way New Testament scholarship appears to be but it is depressing to read in David Henige’s Historical Evidence and Argument so many illustrations of the anti-sceptical attitudes we normally associate with NT scholars among historians of ancient and early medieval times. (This post concludes my little trio on McCullough and Henige.)

Doubt has always been the underdog


Historically, doubt has been deplored more often than deployed. 


Skepticism is not inborn, but an ineluctable product of watchful experience.


If you don’t have a better argument to explain the Bible stories. . . 

Recall from my previous post Norman Walker’s insistence that academics should not be about criticizing arguments unless they can produce better hypotheses in their place.

Is it really always more important to build than to destroy? This, after all, is the fundamental question that describes the disdain with which much skepticism is regarded. Should the skeptic feel bound to replace discredited ideas with better ones? Walker and the others are far from alone in thinking so.

Zvi Yavetz, for instance, argued that “scholarly reassessments are legitimate only if new evidence that invalidates the old is discovered, if a new method of research is applied, and/or if a new outlook emerges.”

Basilica of Sant'Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna, ...
The Three Wise Men”  Detail from: “Mary and Child, Photo credit: Wikipedia)

H.W. Montefiore agrees: “[i]f the story of the Magi is unhistorical (in the sense that it is not based on what actually happened), then some satisfactory account must be given of the origin and development of the tale. (pp. 36-37)

So this is how the (ultimate) historicity of the gospel narratives becomes the unchallengeable conventional wisdom. If we are unable to convince Montefiore and his peers of a better explanation for the Magi story at the birth of Jesus then we are to conclude that the story must have had a historical basis.

This ridiculous stipulation cannot be carried out; nothing like the necessary information is available. In fact, Montefiore went on to offer a few half-hearted suggestions, only to disown them: “[n]one of these explanations seem to be adequate to explain Matthew’s tale, and the possibility must be investigated that Matthew based his story on historical events.”

Such indulgent policies are disastrous for progress, since restricting the grounds for such reassessment all but grants immunity to much of the work already done. It actually favors those who have produced no evidence for their interpretations. (p. 37)

Continue reading “If Scepticism Does Not Come Naturally. . . It’s Worth Fighting For”


The Positive Value of Scepticism — and Building a Negative Case — in Historical Enquiry

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by Neil Godfrey

Screen Shot 2015-06-16 at 8.37.57 pmTo continue the theme of fundamental principles of historical reasoning this post selects points from Historical Evidence and Argument by David Henige (2005). They all come from the fourth chapter titled “Unraveling Gordian Knots”.

Pyrrhonist scepticism

To begin, notice what scepticism means to Henige. He explains:

Skepticism takes many forms—I am concerned with pyrrhonist skepticism. In theory, and often in practice as well, the pyrrhonist doubts but seldom denies. Instead, he prefers to suspend judgment about truth-claims on the grounds that further evidence or insights might alter the state of play. Pyrrhonists demand that, to be successful, all inquiry must be characterized by rhythms of searching, examining, and doubting, with each sequence generating and influencing the next in a continuously dialectical fashion.7

As a result, issues are visited and revisited as often as needed. The result can be to strengthen probability or to weaken it — odds that might seem too risky for those who believe that progress must be inexorable.

The considered suspension of belief does not ordinarily pertain in matters that are self-evident or trivial, but expressly applies to cases where more than one explanation is possible.8

Given this caveat, the practical advantages of pyrrhonism are patent.

The most important is that declining to accept or believe keeps questions open as long as necessary. Practitioners learn to flinch when they meet terms like “certainly,” “without doubt,” “of course,” or “prove/proof” in their reading, seeing them as discursive strikes designed to persuade where the evidence, or its use, prove insufficient. They have learned that, since new evidence and new techniques are constantly coming forth, they are sensible to withhold final judgment.

7 Discussions of pyrrhonism include Naess, Scepticism; Vansina, “Power of Systematic Doubt;” Wlodarczyk, Pyrrhonian Inquiry.

8 For such practical limitations see Ribeiro, “Pyrrhonism.”

(My formatting and bolding in all quotations)

Anathematizing of doubt and doubters

In scolding his most persistent critic, Marshall Sahlins asks: “[w]hy, then, this stonewalling in the face of the textual evidence?

Probably because [Gananath] Obeyesekere’s main debating game is a negative one, . . . the object being to cast doubt.


I’m sure anyone who has read some of the intemperate responses of scholars outraged by Christ Myth or “mythicist” challenges to the traditional reading of Paul’s letters will hear clear echoes here. I’m also reminded of Emeritus Professor of New Testament Language, Literature and Theology Larry Hurtado’s complaint that my questions were only designed to sow doubt and served no constructive function.

Marshall Sahlins and Gananath Obeyesekere draw upon the same body of evidence — the accounts of the various eyewitnesses among Cook’s crew that were published on their return to England. Continue reading “The Positive Value of Scepticism — and Building a Negative Case — in Historical Enquiry”


Are Mythicist Sceptics Hypocritical for Attacking Creationists?

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by Neil Godfrey

This is a small snippet from the latest blog post by David Fitzgerald, Flame War On . . .

Cameron rightly notes that skeptics like me freely attack creationists for denying scientific consensus. But when it comes to the Christ myth, he declares “snubbing the consensus is problematic,” and feels it’s blatantly hypocritical:

“They don’t hesitate to throw around the consensus argument in that context. But when it comes to biblical history, tossing aside the consensus point of view is acceptable, because (conveniently) the evidence is on their side.”

But Cameron has just answered his own dilemma: it’s precisely because Mythicists have evidence that we challenge the current majority opinion – just as the evidence for natural selection challenged the dominant paradigm in Darwin’s time. Creationism isn’t wrong simply because it’s in the minority, and Evolution isn’t true just because the overwhelming majority of scientists say so; it’s true because it’s multiply attested by strong and compelling lines of evidence and has withstood, and continues to withstand, all rival theories. By contrast, there is nothing in Biblical studies that stands confirmed on anywhere near the level of certainty we get in any other branch of science. . . . . Continue reading “Are Mythicist Sceptics Hypocritical for Attacking Creationists?”