In Praise of Bias
For the last few years, I’ve been running a skeptics’ group on the Internet—about 400 subscribers to my SKEPTIC electronic mailing list. One thing stands out: we are an opinionated lot. We don’t, usually, just treat UFO abduction scenarios as unproven. Most of us actively disbelieve this is happening. Indeed, we believe we have good reasons to think all of this nonsense, and we actively behave as if it were nonsense. If we were to leave our armchairs and investigate a claim of fairies, we would begin with a bias. It’s a preposterous idea, just like the Cottingley fairies were, and we expect to find some hoax or cognitive mistake at the bottom of the case.
Our rhetoric is different. We proclaim ourselves dispassionate, objective, desiring only to let the evidence speak for itself. Never do we approach fairies with prior judgments; we merely demand to be shown sufficient evidence to believe in an extraordinary claim. Some of us glorify the suspended judgment, sitting on logical fences and preaching about proving negatives. Some so believe we become tainted by opinions as to indulge in sanctimonious Popperian drivel about only disproving claims.
I don’t know why skeptics’ philosophy of science seems stuck in 50-year-old mistakes. Perhaps armchair skepticism is easier if we can pretend the gods hath decreed the burden of proof is on the other person. But when prodded to move, we show our opinions. If creationists are taking over the local school board, we demand the evidence for evolution be taught. We don’t sit back and lob “unproven”s at creationist claims. When a relative is taken in by a quack therapy, we look for ways to effectively demonstrate it to be crap; we don’t make a big show of suspended judgment and intone “not shown to work” in an official voice.
The myth of the inquirer with no prior opinions is powerful, so it may seem I say something terrible about skeptics when I suggest we are biased. We are touched by cognitive sin, even just (gasp!) another interest group in a world of relative truths. On the contrary: I believe our opinionated actions are wiser than our fence-sitting words. We have learned a good deal about our world, and ghosts, auras, UFO abductions etc. don’t fit the picture we have built up. Of course we expect such claims to be false. This does not mean we are closed-minded or inflexible (though sometimes we are); just that we believe we have good reasons behind our opinions. We haven’t made an exhaustive survey of pigs, but we are justified in saying pigs don’t fly.
Prior opinions need not be “bias” in the sense of distorting our investigations. Joe Nickell’s mind is not a blank slate when he sets out to investigate the latest ghost story. Phil Klass has seen many UFO hoaxes and mistakes; he’s just being reasonable to expect yet more of the same when looking into the next flap. They are also damn good investigators, as far as I can tell—perhaps even because of their biases.
So I think we should admit that we are an opinionated lot, often out to get paranormal claims. Opinions and prior theories are crucial in learning about the world—we cannot just sit and soak up suspended judgments. Perhaps sometimes we go too far and be personally nasty towards paranormal believers, perhaps we sometimes are biased in the sense of blindness to new phenomena. But we do not guard against these dangers by preaching a cult of impartiality. The skeptics I know best, aside from a distrust of paranormal ideas, have a passion for argument in common. We are biased against creationism, UFOlogy, psychical research and so forth, but we do our damnedest to learn about the arguments floating out there about the issue, so we make sure we have good reasons for our judgments. We even change our minds, since our prior opinions are starting points, not articles of faith. I think we skeptics are basically OK. Not perfect, but OK. We’d be even better if we would admit our prior opinions, and see that we need not apologize for them.