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We need scepticism more than ever

8 January 2021

Thanks to the Enlightenment, and the development of scientific thought and technology, the sceptical mind has largely been at home during the modern era. But not anymore, it seems.

This is because the freedom of speech on which scepticism depends has come under ever-more fire in recent years. It is increasingly portrayed as a problem, a risk, a threat. Free speech harms the vulnerable, we’re told, and victimises the weak. Politicians, academics and commentators now routinely talk of the ‘weaponisation of free speech’, usually by nefarious, far-right forces. A group of law professors from prestigious Ivy League universities even argued recently that, thanks to Trump’s use of it, free speech, protected under the once sacrosanct First Amendment, now imperils democracy itself.

That free speech, which is the very precondition for democracy, can now be portrayed as a threat to it, shows the increasing extent to which those in control of cultural and political institutions are reluctant to tolerate dissenting opinions. And if free speech is deemed so threatening, it follows that those who practice it are deemed a danger to society, especially now, during the pandemic. This, it seems, is the fate of the contemporary sceptic.

Just look at the way so-called lockdown sceptics are now talked about. They are accused of ‘having blood on their hands’, and of holding ‘deadly beliefs’. They are to be ostracised, censored and humiliated. In this vein, one Guardian columnist even demanded that a specific scientist, who has criticised the lockdown consensus, be denied access to the media to voice his views. And little wonder. Scepticism is now routinely portrayed as dangerous, something to be quashed lest we all suffer.

It is not just criticism of lockdown restrictions that is under fire. Criticism of other aspects of the establishment’s outlook is also treated in much the same way – that is, as dangerous or threatening. Indeed, it is the attempt by our cultural, political and educational elites to demonise criticism that has contributed to the broader demonisation of scepticism itself. Think of the whiff of sulphur that hangs around those called Eurosceptic or climate-sceptical. They are not presented as mere holders of dissenting opinions; they are presented as morally inferior, and potentially dangerous.

Likewise, their books, articles and broadcast appearances are treated much as medieval church authorities treated heretical texts: as sources of corruption. Take Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz’s review of Bjorn Lomborg’s False Alarm, which criticises aspects of contemporary environmentalism. Stiglitz declares that ‘it would be downright dangerous were it to succeed in persuading anyone’.

Or take the hysterical criticism levelled at the authors of the lockdown-questioning Great Barrington Declaration, and lockdown-sceptical individuals, such as Sunetra Gupta, a professor of theoretical epidemiology at the University of Oxford University. They have been personally and professionally maligned, and, more troubling still, their critics want them removed from the public sphere. This has all the characteristics of a modern high-tech witch-hunt.

Of course, no one’s talking about burning or drowning the sceptical. But the cultural and academic establishment do seem to want sceptics removed from public life. Especially sceptical scientists. Their mainstream opponents claim that TV and radio producers need to stop inviting these ‘fringe’ scientists on to their shows on the supposedly spurious grounds of journalistic balance. The views of the sceptical, they claim, simply do not carry the same academic and scientific weight as those of the mainstream consensus.

This is not a new argument. Concerned about the presence of climate scepticism in the media, the American academic Naomi Oreskes claimed the ‘ethics of journalism do not work for science’. She insisted that debate on scientific matters should only involve paid-up members of scientific institutions whose arguments have been published in peer-reviewed journals. Another commentator claimed that allowing climate sceptics access to the media was a form of moral cowardice, born, presumably, of a refusal to take the side of the one and only truth.

Over the past, pandemic-dominated year, this crusade against scepticism has gone into overdrive. For instance, Big Tech companies like YouTube, Twitter and Facebook have used the threat posed by the pandemic to justify censoring and regulating debate over Covid-related policy. When YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki announced that anything that contradicted the recommendations of the World Health Organisation would be removed, she seemed to have mistaken herself for God’s voice on earth.

The moral devaluation of the sceptic

Historically, calls for censorship were justified on the grounds that a text was either politically subversive or morally corrupting. This justification is now a key part of anti-scepticism dogma.

In this regard, it is telling that Stiglitz accused Lomborg’s False Alarm of threatening ‘mind pollution’. This is a term that echoes the accusation levelled at heretical and morally corrupting literature during earlier periods — namely, that it was morally polluting, or a form of moral poison. For instance, in Concerning Printed Poison (1885), Josiah Leeds distinguished between the ‘obscene’ and the ‘pernicious influence of cheap novels’, which he claimed, were not ‘necessarily filthy’ but nevertheless had a ‘poisonous’ effect on society (1).

Of course, today’s sceptics are not accused of obscenity or moral corruption. No, they are accused of ‘denialism’. This is their evil deed, their heresy. By categorising scepticism as denialism, one is attributing malign intent to the exercise of scepticism. The sceptic is therefore not questioning or interrogating an establishment position; rather, he or she is denying the truth of the establishment position. Such is the quasi-religious force of this strategy that the Guardian, which largely cleaves to establishment positions, updated its style guide in 2019, meaning that climate sceptics were from then on to be referred to as climate-science deniers. Unsurprisingly, this same rhetorical strategy has been applied to those sceptical of lockdown policies, with accusations of ‘Covid denialism’ now routine on social media and in the press.

The idea of denialism is certainly theologically charged, deriving as it does from the once unpardonable sin of denying the word of God. But much of its contemporary moral force draws on its association with Holocaust denial. This is the term applied to those who deny the human tragedy of the Holocaust, and, in doing so, become its after-the-event collaborators – an act of denial that is rightly seen as evil. To apply the same term to those who question the establishment position on lockdowns or climate change is a gross exploitation of the legacy of the Holocaust.

Sadly, such shameless abuse of the Shoah is standard among enemies of scepticism. They have transformed the act of denying the Holocaust into a generic evil, a free-floating blasphemy, which can be attributed to all manner of sceptical positions. As one commentator puts it: ‘Denial is pernicious and can have dire impacts. Climate-change denial leads to lack of action that would preserve a healthy planet. Mask denial leads to increased spread of and mortality from the Covid virus.’

Indeed, it often appears that moral crusaders have become so familiar with acts of denial that they can no longer tell what a difference in opinion looks like. Which is hardly a surprise. The accusation of denialism is fuelled by an intolerance of anyone challenging received wisdom.

In the Middle Ages, the crime of heresy was associated with the denial of an article of truth of the Catholic Church. If heretics refused to renounce their ways, they were punished by being burned at the stake. This practise persisted even after the Reformation. In England, for example, Bartholomew Legatt and Edward Wightman drew the ire of the Church of England for denying the Deity of Christ, and were both burned at the stake in 1612. Wightman has the distinction of being the last heretic to be punished in England in this way.

Today’s deniers are not treated as sinners to be burnt at the stake. Instead they are often treated as mentally diseased individuals, to be locked up away from mainstream debate, while they await treatment. Indeed, this is one of the distinctive features of contemporary anti-sceptical thinking: the psychologisation of the perpetrators of denialism. Sceptics are not simply wrong; they are also ill. Hence a 2009 academic conference asked whether those who deny climate change are ‘suffering from an addiction to consumption’ (2).

Denial has even become part of the vocabulary of psychology. It is described as a defence mechanism that shields a patient from reality. Deployed as a quasi-diagnostic category, denial transforms scepticism into a psychological problem. The sceptic, conceived as a denier, is not to be debated as an equal. He is to be treated as a moral and mental inferior. As Celeste Kidd, a computational cognitive scientist at Berkeley, explains:

‘We don’t yet know if the tendency to hold on to dubious beliefs can be trained out of people… If people are aware of their fallibility, they could be taught to moderate their behaviour accordingly. We are investigating the viability of that idea. We’ll test it and see, because that’s how science works.’

If brainwashing people is ‘how science works’, then society is in big trouble. It is worth remembering that ‘science’ such as this was practised in the Soviet Union, where those holding dissident views were routinely diagnosed as suffering from a psychological disorder. Which is hardly a surprise. Pathologising scepticism allows those in positions of power to dismiss critics as not just wrong, but sick, too.

What is scepticism?

At a time when scepticism is routinely traduced and condemned by upholders of the status quo, it is important to clarify what it really means, and why we should defend it.

As a philosophical outlook, scepticism has been around since the Ancient Greeks. ‘All I know is that I know nothing’, said Socrates. His point was that ignorance is the point of departure for a rigorous search for the truth. This characterises the defining attitude of the sceptic: the suspension of judgment. A sceptic is someone, therefore, who has not decided, or is not in a position to decide, what is true, right or good.

This suspension of judgement does not necessarily entail a refusal to judge. It can mean the postponement of judgment while the sceptic continues to inquire into the problem at hand. Unlike doubt, which involves a negative judgement on truth, scepticism represents a form of pre-judgement. It stands opposed to dogma and an attitude of unquestioned certainty. In some cases, of course, the suspension of judgment can be an act of evasion. But the suspension of judgment can also be a prelude to a commitment to explore further in pursuit of clarity and truth.

As a philosophical orientation, scepticism represents a challenge to the all-too human temptation to embrace dogma. For the Ancient Greeks, scepticism was not about not believing or denying a particular proposition. The genuine sceptic rarely claimed to know that a particular proposition was wrong. Scepticism meant inquiry. Though it can be motivated by a complex range of motives, scepticism is underpinned by a belief that the truth is difficult to discover.

Like any good idea, scepticism should not be pursued dogmatically. There is no need to give up on the idea of knowledge in general in the interests of interminable, sceptical inquiry. A sceptical sensibility accepts the results of, say, scientific research as probable, while merely being open to the possibility that they might have to be modified and even rejected in the future.

This potential for developing knowledge, without claiming certainty or to have discovered The Truth, is vital in today’s distinctly uncertain world. This is important not just for the development of science, but also for the flourishing of a democratic public life. There can be no freedom of thought without the right to be sceptical. Which is why the demonisation of the sceptic today – as a denier, a corrupter, a moral inferior – does not simply reflect polemical excess on the part of those supporting the establishment; it is also an attack on human inquiry itself.

Society needs scepticism to develop. Scepticism encourages society to question the assumptions and taken-for-granted ‘facts’ that otherwise might ossify and become dogma. It allows our intellectual life to yield to new experience. In short, it is the antidote to an excess of certainty.

A sceptical attitude is especially important right now. During this perilous moment, when humanity is confronted by a deadly threat like Covid, there is a temptation to close down debate and limit freedom of speech. In such circumstances, dissenting views can easily be caricatured as a threat to people’s health. To some it even seems that debate itself is a luxury we can no longer afford. Yet it is precisely during an emergency, like the pandemic, that debate and free speech become indispensable. They are the means by which we harness the creativity and the wisdom of the public to deal with the crisis in which we now find ourselves.

The 19th-century biologist Thomas Henry Huxley once wrote that ‘scepticism is the highest of duties; blind faith the unpardonable sin’. Now, more than ever, this is a statement worth heeding. Our future freedom may well depend on it.


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