I have to say, most professional "skeptics" leave me rather cold. Not only are most doctrinaire believers in AGW, despite the dearth of valid evidence, but most also hold a variety of left-statist political beliefs, think atheism is somehow "proven" or "more rational", and hold a host of other beliefs which seem quite inconsistent with skepticism. While I admit religious faith is inconsistent with thoroughgoing skepticism, so is didactic atheism, which seems to be, pardon the term, an article of faith among modern "skeptics". ("Atheism's Circular Reasoning", "Skeptics? Really? I Beg to Differ ")
What brings this up is my desire to revive skepticism as a civic virtue. Not the absolute skepticism that groups such as CSICOP pretend to cultivate (though, again, they seem to have their own dogma at times), but simple skepticism, coupled with a very basic idea that we seem to have lost. The idea that all information is potentially biased, that we should never accept evidence as "unbiased" based on nothing but the assertion of those providing it.
What originally inspired this was a series of posts I wrote on the impossibility of an unbiased press. ("The Failure of Peer Review", "Eco-Nonsense", "Bad Economics Part 1", "The Death of Impartial Media", "The Impossibility of Unbiased Reporting", "Media Double Standards and a Proposed Solution", "Checking In With the Professionals"). At the time I did not go farther, it seemed enough to debunk the idea of an unbiased press, but since then, it has occurred to me that we really may want to do away with the idea of impartiality altogether.
Allow me to give an example.
For instance, when an advertiser provides information provided by a vendor, we assume it is biased, and rightly so. But, for some reason, when a "public service group" or "unbiased scientists" or the government provide information, we pretend to believe they have no agenda. And that is nonsense. Every group has an agenda. Some do a better jobs of keeping their agenda out of their information than others, but all have a bias. And we should not assume a lack of bias just because of a lack of commercial interest.
For that matter, why do we treat "PSAs" and "independent research" differently than corporate research? It can often be just as biased, yet it holds the privileged position of being assumed to be true, while advertisements are assumed false, on as little evidence.
This is nonsense.It smacks of the liberal belief in the "right ideas" held by the "right people". If a "public spirited group" or a left wing political group, or the state or the media, or some other sympathetic group says it, is true, and should be afforded extra weight. That is not how information should work in a free society. We should not have one rule for commercials and one for news and one for government and one for non-profits. All information should be handled the same, all efforts at getting out a message should be the same.
And we, as consumers of information should start this change by treating all of them with equal skepticism. We should not assume "scientist" means unbiased, or "businessman" means biased. One's job or financial interest or any other factor does not mean they will be either biased or not. It is up to the individual to decide how much weight to attach to any given pronouncement.
But that is not the case today. News agencies, "scientists" -- at least a subset recognized by the state -- state agencies, and certain non-profits have privileged positions, while businesses have a built in handicap. Is that the idea of the first amendment, that speech is to be unregulated, except when it comes form the wrong group? That commercials should be regulated, but tearful pleas from Hollywood celebrities can lie openly and with impunity? The IPCC can lie on our dime, while cigarette companies are forced to pay for advertisements running down their own products?
That is what comes of pretending there is unbiased information and sources that we can all trust. What we need is a real free market in ideas, and that means one without government. Not just without government restrictions, but without government funding, endorsement, sponsorship or research. Ideas are the province of the individual, not the state. Once the state enters into the battle of ideas, then that battle becomes biased in favor of the state's preferences.
Originally posted in Random Notes on 2010/02/27.