Why Skepticism Is Important For Science

Skepticism is important for science, and for more than one reason. A science without skepticism is no different than an echo-chamber or an undiversified investment portfolio. We run the risk of having all our efforts invested into one idea or one method, which is quite an unpalatable risk when we consider the possibility of those singular ideas and methods being bad or faulty. A science without skepticism is a science where no methods are wrong, and where we are exposed to egregious risk; a science without skepticism neither innovates nor improves. For these reasons, science is important for skepticism. But let’s explain why in greater detail.

Not All Methods Are Created Equal: Skepticism Helps Us Get Better Methodologies

Perhaps a surprise to some, but not to many, experiments contain flawed methodologies, interpretations, and conclusions. To wholeheartedly accept the conclusions of a particular experiment without first being skeptical toward the method is assuredly not how good science is done; doing such is equivalent to letting someone make an argument by simply announcing a conclusion without any supporting premises. Yet time after time, a lack of skepticism has reliably made people draw wild conclusions from experiments.

For example, there are many famous caloric restriction studies (CR) on animals other than humans. We have done them on mice, monkeys, yeast, worms, and etc.. The general idea behind these studies is that, when calorically restricted by 20% to 50%, animals live longer and healthier. Organisms that undergo CR have lower rates of cancer, lower rates of heart disease, and more energy; they also look physically better than their non-CR counterparts. However, one very important flaw in many of these CR studies is the fact that the control groups, those being the non-CR animals, were allowed to eat as much as they liked; and not surprisingly, they ate too much. In other words, those who thought animals lived longer when calorically restricted could not really make that claim; the claim they instead had to make was “calorically restricted animals live longer than animals that eat too much”. Of course, this was not the claim often made since it is less sensational.

So, because there was a lack of skepticism by many who read the studies on CR, what was far more commonly argued is that CR can extend the human life span. Yet even with more up-to-date research, conducted over many more years, we still cannot even make that claim! In fact, when we employ skeptical thinking and compare CR research to bluezone research, we find that people who live in blue zones do not engage in caloric restriction, and they live the longest lives among all humans! 

The point being, not all methods are equal in science, and we should be skeptical of methodologies within science.

Science Exposes us to Error

Unlike many other disciplines and worldviews, those which fall under the umbrella of science have influence over our political and social institutions. Foreign policy, tax policy, and so many other areas of government are all influenced by scientists and their dogmas. Which is not intrinsically bad, but is something to cause concern, nonetheless.

When bad science becomes a dogma within a particular discipline, it can cause serious damage to our institutions. For instance, eugenics programs implemented bad science across all of America. Especially because we knew very little about genetics at the time.

We did not know at the time that the genes for schizophrenia were also important for the immune system, yet a eugenicist would have certainly encouraged the sterilization of those who had schizophrenia in the family; we did not know about recessive traits, recessive traits which would have been deemed desirable by eugenicists, if only they were readily visible to the human eye; and we certainly still do not know even today what traits make for a healthy population versus a healthy individual, and what trade-offs have to be made between those two. 

But eugenics is not the only form of bad science which harms our political and social institutions. Bad climate science harms our political initiatives toward climate protection; terrible understandings of evolutionary theory lead to bad social policies: i.e.,the view that humans are born blank and can be culturally conditioned to be nice, kind, caring, and all around virtuous; and bad financial theories can cause serious issues with our currencies through bad central banking policies.

So, unless we are skeptical about science, we are going to be exposed to the errors made by scientists. In some cases, the error is minor, like some inflation in our currency; however, in other cases, like forced sterilization, the error is massive!

Skeptics Bring New Ideas to Science

To no surprise, when scientists develop in their career, they gain more authority and acceptance, usually. And as much holds true for their ideas, usually. Which seems great, because that then creates a sort of meritocracy, in theory. As scientists become more experienced and grasp their subjects better, they are considered to be more legitimate.

However, for every yard gained by a scientist is another yard a new idea must go. What can happen when scientist’s gain too much influence is that their dogmas become infallible. No one can doubt their theories or the validity of their experiments.

A few consequences can come from this, but one important consequence is the lack of new ideas and therefore new innovations. If we only value well established theories and place no significance into doubting those well established theories, then we will never have anything but well established and old theories. Which has pros and cons.

Horses were a magnificent thing to have, they allowed you to travel to far off places in shorter amounts of time, but automobiles were better. A horse is a good thing, but a car is a better thing. And in order to get a car, we needed to encumber risk – the con – for better modes of travel. New theories are less tested and so more risky, not only to our research funds but even to our health: i.e., vaccines, experimental surgeries, and etc.

So, some skepticism seems reasonably important for science, because a science without skepticism has neither new ideas nor new innovations to better the quality of human life.

Science is Not Truth

Truth is as much a theory as gravity, and so when a scientist says they have truth they are really saying they have a theory of truth. And a skeptic will promptly remind not only the scientist but everyone else who has seemingly forgotten that epistemic certainty is nowhere to be found in human forms of knowledge.

Far too often scientists, but not only scientists, of course, give the argument that their conclusions are matters of “fact” and not “opinion”. That science is objective and irrefutable! Something most skeptics probably find laughable by the 100th time they have heard such rhetoric.

For reasons far too complicated to explain in full, all propositions (including this very one) are unjustifiable. Whenever someone asserts something as being true, we can always ask how they know it is true. In response, they will provide us with a piece of evidence. And much to their surprise, when a skeptic then asks, “why is this evidence a good standard,” they no longer have an answer.

For example, if I asked a physicists how it is that they know gravity is true, they might respond by saying, “well, watch this apple. If it drops, we can confirm that gravity is a true theory”. To that, I would then ask, “why is seeing something a good standard to use for justifying your belief”. Here is where most scientists squirm, just like philosophers and laymen alike who never study skepticism.

Again they squirm for reasons far too complex to explain here, though which I have fully explained in my book, “knowing nothing,”. That is something you will have to study on your own.

In essence then, skepticism reminds us of just how tentative scientific theories really are. It helps us avoid the confusion that comes from taking some arbitrary, unjustifiable scientific theory as true. Without skeptics inside science some scientists might eventually forget that their theories are not epistemically certain.


Skepticism is important for science because it helps us rid science of flawed methods, or at the very least point out flawed methods; skepticism is important for science because science has a large influence over our political and social institutions, which makes us vulnerable to bad science; skepticism is important for science because old ideas can sometimes become so accepted that a lack of innovation is what becomes of science; and lastly, skepticism is important for science so that scientists can constantly be reminded of how tentative their theories are. A science without skepticism is, assuredly, plagued by these diseases.

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Ideasinhat is a business development analyst and longtime reader of academic literature. He writes books and essays on science and philosophy, and posts them to this website. The essays, as with the books, cover topics from psychology, philosophy, and cognitive science to economics, politics, and law.

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