Home > Creativity, leadership, Teaching, Uncertainty > Responsible skepticism in action

Responsible skepticism in action


maybe the best description of skepticism in action I have read lately, from Robert Burton, M.D. at Salon, describing the questions he’s ask of candidates for President and why. A longish quote, but it’s that good.

…Ideally, …(t)he candidates would be given questions, including a variety of “thought experiments” for which they could not be prepared in advance. Then we could see their thought processes in action. We would have a better idea of how they reasoned and whether they rely on gut feelings and instincts. We could see their ability to step back from their own answers to judge their quality and accuracy.

… I would particularly want to focus on each candidate’s intellectual grasp of scientific method, from choosing and evaluating evidence to seeing how they would respond to a well-constructed contrary line of reasoning. I would want them to answer difficult, complex questions … for which they may not have adequate knowledge. I want to see how the candidates respond when stumped. Are they evasive, flustered or straightforward in admitting what they don’t know or understand? Equally important, I would like to see how each responds when presented with evidence that his answers are wrong. Is he or she capable of admitting to having made an error? Would he or she be flexible enough to change an opinion?

And, when answers seem to conflict with traditional reasoning and scientific method, I would want the candidate to explain why he or she continues to hold such beliefs. For example, give me a reason-based, scientific explanation of speaking in tongues, or how one can objectively determine that one has “heard the voice of God,” or that the Earth is 7,000 years old. This is not meant as a challenge to one’s faith — each of us is entitled to our beliefs. But as a public servant, each candidate has the obligation to explain how non-scientific beliefs are justified. If a candidate insists on a faith-based decision, such as “knowing” that the Earth is only as old as written in the Bible, I want to hear how that is justified in the face of contrary evidence.

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